HAVING GROWN UP IN MISSISSIPPI, I have a weakness for Southern fiction. My curiosity was especially piqued by a friend’s gift and this Southern claim. I do confess to admiring many of John Grisham’s novels, particularly Sycamore Row, but I I rarely read a bestseller unless a better-read friend attempts it first. I shun New York Times’ bestseller lists simply because they are popular. Forget the press and the hubbub.
Case in point. I made the mistake of reading Gone Girl a few years ago and have always regretted the hours I lost. I found I intensely dislike amoral stories without one character to savor or cheer for. Thankfully Delia Owens’s Kya Clark is not that character, though she appears a pitiful orphan in every way. How forlorn to hear young Kya’s thoughts—“What she wondered was why no one took her with them.” Yet this read is more than character-driven.
In Where the Crawdads Sing, Owens steeps her readers in a thoroughly engaging marshland setting. In fact, I would go so far as to compare her land to a living character much like Willa Cather does in her immigrant novels.
The land is ripe with paradox—safe yet dangerous, shining yet muddy, life amid decay.
Like Cather, Owens’s language fills us with every sensation and plants us firmly in Kya’s world of loss and hope. The land indeed nurtures her into and through her adult life with a “yearning to reach out yonder.” In her younger years, nature is a place of solace, a companion. But once her heart is awakened to human love and to the real relationship of years, creation cannot fill the void in the human heart—--
But just as her collection grew, so did her loneliness. A pain as large as her heart lived in her chest. Nothing eased it. Not the gulls, not a splendid sunset, not the rarest of shells.”
And there is a void. More than a century before, Cather writes of this too. Within O Pioneers!, the land is characterized more by its strength than by its vastness. Like a human personality, it can be overbearing or supportive. Alexandra Bergson understood this. She too was intimidated at first as “the land wanted to be left alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar kind of savage beauty, its uninterrupted mournfulness,” but as decades passed, the land appears an empathic friend as it “responds in kind.” More than personified, the land becomes a rounded character in full relationship with man.
Like Alexandra Bergson, Kya possesses a faith in the land that others lack. The land is wholly human to her in relationship. And, if she has a faith, then it is no wonder that creation responds to her and reveals its treasures. It is there that she finds friendship with the marsh’s creatures, safety from prying eyes, relationship with her first love Tate, inspiration for the work of preserving nature in art.
More than eco-fiction, this novel doesn't preach of preserving the marshland, at least not overwhelmingly like a smarmy salesman. The story is one of relationship. Where the land could have been seen as a trap that limits, it is ultimately a place of rescue for Kya.
Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash
What a worthy translation by David Jack.
The second in his translation series, this latest 2018 edition of Castle Warlock provides the complete original Scots text side by side with English. In his introduction Jack writes, “Many people know MacDonald chiefly as a writer of fantasies, and indeed within the story of Castle Warlock are elements of the supernatural worthily handled by the master.” And I agree.
George MacDonald’s novels aren’t bound to plot as other fiction works of the 19th century are. Rather, MacDonald is bound to the poetic truth he must tell through his characters and the places they live. Treasure this as a slow read with beautiful waysides, not as a plot-driven romp.
MacDonald narrates, “I think we shall come at length to feel all places, as all times and all spaces, venerable, because they are the outcome of the eternal nature and the eternal thought.
When we have God, all is holy, and we are at home.
The sense of belonging and the theme of fatherhood are constants. But they are things that must be found or realized. This search is evident in young Cosmo Warlock as he matures under a wise and humble father through the length of the book.
No honest heart indeed could be near Cosmo long and not love him—for the one reason that humanity was in him so largely developed.
The lives and stories of Joan, Aggie, and Grizzie join Cosmo’s as we slowly and certainly come to love them all. They are the stories of friends as MacDonald consistently teaches us of God’s faithfulness. Though I struggled with Cosmo’s lack of discernment when the doctor entreats him about Joan, I chalk it up to the struggle of youth and experience as MacDonald may have intended. And finally, I do admit to crying upon reading MacDonald’s poem postlude. Such beauty in the meaning of shadow and light, and how much more in God’s light revealed through MacDonald’s characters.
For information on David Jack's brave work of translating all twelve of MacDonald's Scots novels, read more at The Works of George MacDonald and enjoy a listen here.
IT'S TRUE I came to Leif Enger’s novel late, almost two decades after it was published, but it resonated with me in its prose, its simplicity, its relationships. Like Reuben who always struggled with asthma, I caught my breath as I read. Life came after a moment of suspense. Hope returned. This struggling motherless family in 1963 North Dakota shared a beautiful, imperfect life.
Through the young eyes of Reuben, however, life is different and his father, his tellings, his relationship with God throughout the story, are essential to the reality Reuben believes. His father Jeremiah Land is the everyday hero who loves well. Reuben witnessed and heard his father pray and speak to God in realness, and it tainted, yes tainted, everything the boy saw and experienced from the miracle of life when his lungs refused to breathe at birth to his father walking on water or to protecting a son, the miracle is there. It is a living, breathing thing.
And I still can’t entirely grasp how Enger did it. It had to have been something he lived to inhabit the story so. Perhaps it was the element of sacrifice, that permanent expression, that made love real.
We see it in each relationship—Reuben and his older brother Davy, Reuben and his sister Swede and the stories she creates, and especially Reuben with his father.
Through his physical suffering that long winter, Reuben wonders, “Shouldn’t that be the last thing you release: the hope that the Lord God, touched in His heart by your particular impasse among all others, will reach down and do that work none else can accomplish—straighten the twist, clear the oozing sore, open the lungs? Who knew better than I that such holy stuff occurs?” But the miracle didn’t happen in that moment of need. It waited for the greatest need.
By their nature, miracles are undefinable. If they were concrete things, solid words and such, then the word would lose its potency. Not just anything can be a miracle. Reuben’s life is real, not contrived, and life is indeed a struggle except for those miracle moments that breathe more life into us.
IT WAS A CLASSIC when it was first published in 1949, but it remains a classic because it is one-of-a-kind. Marchette Chute’s Shakespeare of London is absolutely the best biography because of her approach.
Chute essentially crafted the story of Shakespeare’s life from a paper trail, from wherever she could find town records, lease arrangements, tax papers, theatre programs, personal letters, and really anything in print. She creates a holistic picture of the time period in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London while effectively showing the complexity of the London stage. Chute writes about how Shakespeare’s arrival in London was perfectly timed as the theatres themselves were just blossoming:
William Shakespeare brought great gifts to London, but the city was waiting with gifts of its own to offer him. The root of his genius was his own but it was London that supplied him with favoring weather."
This is no encyclopedic list of chronologies but the real lives of Shakespeare, James Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and others who made up the Chamberlain’s Men. As readers, we learn of Shakespeare’s family, the myriad skills of successful actors, the competitive nature of playwrights and theatre companies, and the dictates and pleasures of theatre-lover Queen Elizabeth and her Master of Revels.
In fact, one of my favorite parts is that Shakespeare apparently was a man of integrity:
...he was a relaxed and happy man, almost incapable of taking offense. He did not participate in any of the literary feuds of the period, which...were particularly numerous in the Elizabethan age, with its delighted talent for invective.”
He worked almost twenty years in London without friction or any major offense because he had a “natural good temper and instinctive courtesy.”
Perhaps the greatest praise I could give is that Chute is a delight to read. Yes, the sheer number of dates, names, and details could be overwhelming, yet the reader doesn't feel it. With a fluid narrative, Chute has produced a fascinating wealth of research in a most readable form.
NOTA BENE: Younger readers will also enjoy her Introduction to Shakespeare and Stories from Shakespeare.
*originally published October 25, 2017
COMING TO CHRIST IS NO PANACEA, but if C.S. Lewis were to tell us a tale of how pain and doubt were inevitable and unavoidable in a life of belief in God, who would willingly listen? It’s one thing to share personal experience or to preach a lesson, but in fiction, an author and his audience might just be left with a moralizing and probably unlikeable character instead.
Most fiction features at least one appealing character—the one you cheer for, stumble with, return to. Therein lies one of the trickiest elements in Till We Have Faces. Perhaps one of the most exasperating characters of all of Lewis’s novels, Orual is an unlikely blend for a central character. At the beginning of the tale, she is practically an orphaned girl without love or looks, and so we naturally pity her. By the time Psyche is born, it seems that Orual now has a purpose in life. In spite of her abusive father, she can now care for Psyche and be loved in return by Psyche and the Fox. Yet that same thing that brings joy to Orual also brings the most pain, and we begin to dislike Orual as she denies the truth of Psyche’s sincere faith and even the god who revealed himself to her. Orual’s long-term obstinacy, even her manipulation, is offensive to us. We are frustrated by her resistance.
But there are moments of hope. When she ascends the mountain with Bardia, her heart delights in the beauty that surrounds her. In spite of the errand of grief, her heart is responsive. This is not just a sensitivity to nature, but a means by which God can speak to her. As her audience, we too hope that she might know God. Hope might also spur her to pray and ask the gods for their help after her first visit to the Grey Mountain.
Doubt is a harsh teacher, and it’s probably because it stems from our own selfishness.
Yet Orual hears and feels nothing after hours of prayer. When we look at her in those moments, we can see that she is likely manipulating her religion. Orual wants things her own way because she only understands how to do things, to make things happen, in order to get something else. Her prayers are based on herself, not a sincere relationship with God. She selfishly demands an answer, and it must come in the way she chooses.
Orual’s wrestling is paralleled in James 1:6-8 (ESV): But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. Doubt is a harsh teacher, and it’s probably because it stems from our own selfishness. With doubt in the way, Orual cannot see or hear the gods.
I FEEL LIKE I'M ALWAYS READING with plenty more to read, but I don't think I would ever describe myself as a well-read person. I have a feeling I'm not the only one too. I like reading and learning, plain and simple.
I thought I'd share bits of my summer stack from last year. My stack is incomplete without my Kindle reads, but it's a fair representation. Here are my categories:
FAVORITE LIGHT READS.
I have a privileged position. I really do. The graduating class at our small high school has only sixteen seniors this year. Most years we have fewer than thirty. Last year, I chose to add to my normal parting gift of a heartfelt note and gave each senior a pocket size poetry book. Typical frugal educator that I am, I used my Barnes and Noble coupons every few weeks and eventually purchased enough of the same five books.
This year I started even earlier in the semester because I really wanted to give a meaningful volume that spoke to each student. And yes, that is quite the endeavor. Who wants to give something that will lay dust-ridden on a shelf or languish in a box of lost toys? Sorry, that’s the Island of Lost Toys.
I chose these for pure readability and simple pleasure, hoping that the beauty of word choice would shine, even in the event of an obscure line or two. I could share all sixteen book choices, but that might scare you away. Instead here is the array that just might fit as you consider presents for any type of graduate.
Weary at last with way-worn wandering
4. No worthy list can ignore nature, and this is a terrible thing because I enjoy so many nature poets. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Willa Cather, Percy Shelley. It is limitless and varied. Maybe I can include two twentieth century ones then? I would choose the newest 2017 Sterling Selected Poems of Robert Frost, illustrated edition for its keepsake quality. Thomas Nason’s woodcut engravings that have accompanied several Frost volumes in decades past are included in glossy full-page contrast. The pages long to be touched. One hundred poems feature Frost and his New England at their best. Secondly I am torn between Richard Wilbur and Wendell Berry, but alas Berry has published several smaller volumes, that is “approachable” volumes, for young readers. I chose A Small Porch, which contains his Sabbath poems from 2014 and 2015 plus an extended essay on nature—
The best of human work defers always to the in-forming beauty of Nature’s work . . . It is only the Christ-life, the life undying, given, received, again given, that completes our work.
5. And now for the Emilys, or is it Emmys? For Gothic verse, for sheer empathic skill in one so young, I enjoy the Everyman edition of Emily Bronte. Once again, it’s bite-sized and not as thick a tome as her complete poems. True, Bronte often deals in death and grief because it was the reality of the day, but that should not dissuade us or obscure her brighter moments. Consider "No Coward Soul Is Mine" and "Love and Friendship."
I trust these are helpful choices, and I especially would love to hear your gift suggestions.
Comment on my blog or message me through my Contact page, and let's share together!
Binge drinking, binge eating, and binge-worthy shows speak to man’s addictive nature. But what about binge reading? Publishing houses and their marketing machines presume it’s all about sequels and series. “Give them more!” they cry.
But the truth is that avid readers have done it for centuries, even for the same book.
Two hundred years ago even the wealthiest purchased subscriptions to lending libraries because books were still quite expensive. Thus, reading audiences across Europe were understandably small until the educated population increased. It’s no wonder that reading more than one book or rereading one would be considered an indulgence.
My reading binges usually correspond with school breaks or a long weekend. It’s a predictable thing. Give me some time off of work, especially time in airports, and I speed read. My travel home from Los Angeles last week made way for two full novels in twelve hours. Though I didn’t choose them for depth, I did find myself learning new things and appreciating both authors.
Louis L’Amour’s Callaghen features a veteran soldier in his thirties who has the right amount of grit and instinct to stay alive with his patrol in the Mojave Desert post-Civil War. Irish to the core, Callaghen is clear L’Amour hero material: He was a tall man, with wide shoulders, a well-setup man who ordinarily moved easily and with some grace. Around the post he was something of a mystery. He is a clear underdog, and you find yourself easily rooting for a cliched character: He rode straight into the morning, his gun ready, and death rode with him, almost at his side.
The story is almost too predictable, too suitable for an easy read. The characterization is flat as can be, but L’Amour has a way with action scenes blended with a heavy setting in this plot. It’s clear that he researched a great deal because the desert is a living character throughout the story, for the desert is always waiting . . . the desert itself speaks, for the earth lives, and in the night’s stillness one can hear the earth growing, hear the dying and the borning and the rebirth of many things. A bit of sand trickles, a rock falls, a tree whispers of moans—these are the breathings of the earth. Oh, the setting! I want to write like that. I was captivated by this place of life and death and felt that alone made the novel worthy reading.
Published twenty years later, Chinua Achebe’s sequel to Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease is a 1950s drama illustrating the tension of modern culture grating against village wisdom. Achebe’s clever use of dialogue uniquely reflects the people, and I for one, loved to hear them speak.
The story follows the life of Nigerian Obi Okonkwo, the eldest son of Isaac Okonkwo and the first selected by the Umuofia village to go to university in London. He has four years to pay back four years of schooling once he returns. And return he does, though not as the expected lawyer nor with the ideal wife. Okonkwo finds employment in the large city of Lagos and quickly discovers how easy it is to spend his advance salary and how to land in debt.
As a member of the scholarship board, Okonkwo idealistically refuses bribes of any kind. He expresses how he hoped to be the one who changes the government system, and everyone knows it all runs on bribery. Unfortunately, things do fall apart. His mother falls ill, and he travels to his native village where he is forbidden to marry his girflriend Clara because she is osu, a Nigerian whose family line had once been dedicated to pagan gods.
As the plot continues, the one thing I am struck by is how similar this story is to the American play of the 1950s. Think the despondency of Death of a Salesman. Though written in 1994, Achebe lands the story firmly in a patch of modern malaise, the feeling that yes, things will fall apart, and yes, things will only get worse. And more so, the characters and the story will lose hope, if they ever had a bit at all. The theme is familiar, yet Achebe’s writing style remains engaging.
My brief binge is over, and I have many books on my platter yet. Yes, a platter. Who has room for a mere plate anyway?
I FIRST READ Up from Slavery ten years ago and was quickly surprised that it wasn’t required reading for every educator. In his autobiography, Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915) leaves us an equal bounty of moral wisdom and caution that all began with his dream to learn. Education is central to his story. He writes, There was never a time in my youth, no matter how dark and discouraging the days might be, when one resolve did not continually remain with me, and that was a determination to secure an education at any cost.
Once the slaves were freed after the Civil War, Washington, his mom, and siblings walked from Franklin County, Virginia, to the salt mines of Malden, West Virginia, to join his stepdad who had found work there. In a rough shanty town of whites and blacks, Washington envied the one young colored boy who read the evening papers aloud to his neighbors. Within a few weeks, Washington taught himself to read the alphabet. Within a few months, the colored people had found their first teacher, a Negro boy from Ohio who was a Civil War veteran. The families all agreed to board him as pay, and he taught children and adults alike. Washington relates, it was a whole race trying to go to school. The oldest Negroes were determined to read the Bible before they died, and every class, even Sunday school, was full of eager learners of every age. Unfortunately, Washington was not one of them.
Washington leaves us an equal bounty of moral wisdom and caution that all began with his dream to learn.
Washington’s stepdad found him to be more valuable as a worker and would not release him from his shifts. For months, while he worked at the head of the mine, Washington watched the Negro children walk to and from school. Eventually, he was able to secure lessons at night and eagerly devoured all he could. As time passed and he continued to press his stepfather, Washington finally won. He was allowed to work early, go to day school, work two more hours late afternoon before returning home—all at the age of eleven.
Washington worked as a salt packer, coal miner, and house servant, always attending school in the off hours. By 1872 at the age of sixteen, he traveled for a month to reach Hampton, Virginia, to attend a teacher school for African Americans. He served as the school janitor to support himself and graduated in three years with a certificate to teach in a trade school. The desire to learn was his work ethic. His work ethic was his desire to learn.
As Washington saw his dream to educate others come to fruition, he taught at a local school in Hampton then in a program for Native Americans before agreeing to train Negroes at an agricultural and mechanical school in Alabama, the Tuskegee Institute. He writes humbly and fluently of his years there in leadership, even as his national influence grew.
Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.
Slave or free, shallow or deep, useless or useful. The distractions of life, the shiny things, are superficial. Yes, we agree. Our country, our people, this humanity, cannot grow until we see past them and move toward seeing each other in every skill or occupation or gifting as God designed us.
In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway portrays the character of Frederic Henry as a hedonist, a young man who has always been indulged but is trapped by the circumstances of war. He lives each day completing his work and pursuing his pleasures, likely aware that he could be killed at any moment. Henry is surrounded with other characters who act as he does, yet he searches for a greater meaning for his life, almost as if mining for that singular thing of value, hoping for better and fumbling through.
At the beginning of the novel, Hemingway likens Henry to his immoral peers, claiming like Rinaldi that they are “all fire and smoke and nothing inside.” Henry drinks wine with his companions and goes to the whorehouse with the captain. He drinks regularly with his roommate Rinaldi at any time of day and womanizes both at the officer’s whorehouse and in town with the new nurses. Being with women is just a game for him, and he claims that he “did not care what he was getting into.”
Henry is much like Aristotle’s incontinent man who pursues pleasure and does experience momentary regret, but not enough to elicit change. Henry even says to the priest, “we did not do the things we wanted to do; we never did such things.” Though meager, Henry’s sense of morality, or at the least, his awareness of moral choice, does exist.
A life without faith breeds hopelessness.
Once Henry is wounded though, Hemingway clarifies Henry’s budding perspective. Henry agrees with the priest that the “war disgust” is depressing and acknowledges that he does not know God, only fears Him. So though he admits that God exists and that man is in need, Henry chooses not to rely upon God, but rather upon himself.
Henry’s disposition toward Catherine also changes and matures. Once in the Milan hospital, Henry sees Catherine and knows that he is in love with her. At first in Book I, he had lied to placate her, and she was fully aware of and complicit in his game. But now, it’s as if he accidentally stumbles upon the greater meaning he unconsciously desires—love. Hemingway describes it as being “never lonely and never afraid when we were [are] together.” As Henry recuperates, Catherine continues to visit him, and they spend their nights together. In fact, they live almost exclusive of others and find meaning only in themselves and their relationship. Hemingway’s humanistic view relies solely on their choices, their mutual self-reliance.
What kind of love is this?
At the end of his escape, Henry reasons that all he wants to do in life is “eat and drink and sleep with Catherine.” This sentiment, this declaration of need, dominates Henry’s reasoning through the remaining chapters. Henry later states to Count Greffi that the thing he values most is “Someone I love,” and the Count replies that “that is a religious feeling.”
For Henry, being with Catherine is almost transcendental; it becomes his purpose for living, particularly because he deserted the Italian army not only for his survival, but also for hers and the baby’s. In spite of the fact that Henry becomes entirely dependent upon Catherine for his happiness, Hemingway ironically portrays Catherine as a shallow automaton who tirelessly asks Henry how she can please him or make him happy. Even in her final throes of labor she doesn’t want to make trouble. Her character shows no depth, yet Henry remains fervently devoted. Perhaps this obsession is one reason Henry’s path to happiness fails upon Catherine’s death and that of their son.
By Hemingway’s closing commentary, we now know that Frederic Henry is not only a pleasure-seeking humanist, but also a fatalist. Henry blames the world, or vaguely God, for his tragedy: “You never got away with anything.” He’s convinced that the immorality of his nights in Milan led to this negative end. Henry acknowledges what most would term “sin” and attributes these happenings as direct consequences, of reaping what was sown, without a hope of eternity: “You died. You did not know what it was about,” and Catherine too terms her imminent death “a dirty trick.”
This hopelessness is a just denouement for a character who lived a life without faith from the beginning, but the bigger question just might be what Hemingway was illustrating about the generation he lived in.