Friday, November 28, 2014

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James ~ my review

Image result for The Portrait of a Lady

If you guessed by noting two uses of the word “physiognomy” in the first three pages that The Portrait of a Lady depicts a more literate era, you would be right. If you guessed by the author’s taking 21 chapters to set up the intrigue that he might have had an eye for detail rivaling Charles Dickens’, you would be right. And that he was writing for a more patient, less video-crazed readership than exists today. Or if you guessed that this novel’s descriptions might have been drawn out into many magazine segments as was common in the late 1800s, you would be right. But if you guessed that author Henry James’ lengthy, lyrical “reedy, silvery Thames” descriptions depict only innocence and quaint dealings, you would be wrong.

The Portrait of a Lady begins with perhaps a foreshadowing of the tangled web to be woven beginning in chapter 22: “Real dusk would not arrive for many hours … the shadows … lengthened slowly …” The subtlety of evil slithers without her awareness into our heroine’s life long after we have gotten to know her character. Then she is faced with tougher decisions than she’s ever had to make before. Although Psalm 15’s concept of keeping a promise even if it ruins you is not mentioned in the novel, it certainly comes to mind as our heroine ponders options in her dismal dilemma.

Our heroine, bright, inquisitive Isabel Archer, is a young lady brought from New York to England by her aunt, Mrs. Touchett. The Touchetts are Americans who have lived a life of gentility in England for 30 years when The Portrait of a Lady begins. Through them, Isabel has opportunity to travel and mingle with gentle persons throughout Europe. Acquaintances and suitors abound, as Isabel’s adventures feed her independent spirit and hunger to learn about all kinds of people. She learns some people sacrifice themselves for her, and some sacrifice her for themselves. Through her experiences, the reader sees subtle, tragic faults in two common ideals and idols of youth—freedom and defense of underdogs.

This novel evokes emotions from pleasure to pain. Although few of us have money enough to freely roam Europe for years, we can visit new lands and stroll estate gardens vicariously through Isabel. We can marvel and in some cases, laugh at the intelligent candor of this novel’s characters. We can linger in the leisurely pace of James’ descriptions. But then we also revisit mistakes of our youth. We wonder how a person can ever really know another’s character and motives. Indeed, we struggle to wriggle free of horrible ropes of reality: We can’t ever fully know another’s motives. Both love and hatred appear in different forms in this novel. The Portrait of a Lady is also an insightful study of how having or not having money affects character.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Book review: The Complete Thérèse of Lisieux

Have you ever wondered what childlike faith looks like in an adult? Sometimes I wonder how a middle-aged adult like myself can “go back” to such simple trust. The Complete Thérèse of Lisieux, translated and edited by Robert J. Edmonson, helped me see a beautiful example grounded in a beautiful, biblical understanding of God—fear of the Lord based on tender, intimate love. I recommend reading this book in quiet surroundings at a pace that allows pondering.

I’m not even sure why I bought this book. I am not Catholic. I pray to Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Spirit and find no biblical basis for praying to saints. But in fifth grade I chose Therese as my Catholic confirmation name after Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux. I have no recollection why. Perhaps it was that curiosity that led to the purchase in Paraclete Press’ bookstore on Cape Cod. After reading the book, I still do not remember what possessed my fifth-grade mind to choose Therese, but my adult faith was enriched by reading about this humble saint.

The Complete Thérèse of Lisieux consists not only of Thérèse Martin’s autobiography “The Story of a Soul,” but also of her prayers, letters, and poems, as well as “Remembrances of Thérèse by the Sisters of the Lisieux Carmel,” her convent. Appendices include French and English versions of the childhood poem that inspired Thérèse’s being known as “the little flower,” a list of important dates in her life, and photographs. The book is a lovely collection. Thérèse’s pure devotion to Jesus is palpable on these pages.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My review of Jan Karon's Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good

If you liked Jan Karon’s earlier Father Tim novels (Mitford series), you’ll probably like her newest, Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good. In this story, Father Tim and his wife Cynthia are back in Mitford, which, as usual, suffers the same modern-day troubles (like economic recession, illnesses, accidents, political strife) towns across America suffer. And as usual, Karon presents human foibles and frustrations with humor. The usual Mitford personalities are there, a little older now, some wiser, some not. Like Karon’s earlier Mitford novels, this novel is a series of vignettes, and a fast, enjoyable read.

I had only one difficulty with this story: I found it hard to follow. I never had that difficulty before, so maybe it’s just that I’m older and less able to keep track of multiple characters. Or maybe I missed a Karon book that might contain missing links. I thought I’d read them all, but maybe not. Or perhaps when Karon included a backstory reminder, I lost track of the current thread. I don’t know. I still very much enjoyed the book; I’m just not sure I got all of it.

Some might see another negative in that the story seems too idyllic. I wondered about this myself. Earlier novels in the Mitford series did seem to have more sinister evil-caused tension in them. This novel’s characters face plenty of challenges like personality clashes, health threats, rebellion, addictions, and floundering. Several of these situations create significant suspense. So the story is not without its representation of our fallen world. And I concluded that in fact, this story is not TOO idyllic. Here’s why.

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good shows, as does Charles Sheldon’s 1896 novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, what Jesus might do if He lived in Mitford, or my town, or yours. Not that Father Tim is perfect. But he obeys how Jesus taught us to live, he musters courage to confront and go out of his way for others, and he gives credit to God. The “Yeah, right, who would do that?” part of me wants to call this story too idyllic, because I know I don’t do what Father Tim does. But the “Oh, this way of living is God’s best desire for us” part of me is humbled to see Father Tim’s example.

We humans long to belong. We long to be understood. We long for people to see our hearts with God’s love and to show us mercy. It’s a kind of heaven on earth, a foretaste of real heaven, and a picture of God’s love for us. In that, the novel does give us an idyllic picture, but it is not TOO idyllic. It is possible. It is true. It is the earthly love God had in mind when He gave us His commandments. In Somewhere Safe, the weekly newspaper, Mitford Muse, has a contest themed “Does Mitford still take care of its own?” I felt inspired seeing all the ways it still does.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Come, Tell Me How You Live ~ my review

In her Foreword, Agatha Christie Mallowan cautions the reader not to expect grand revelations in her archaeological travel journals, which have been compiled into the book Come, Tell Me How You Live. She says it is only “everyday doings and happenings.” Grand revelations they may not be, but what fascinating, delightful stories! When I finished reading this book, I just wanted to read it all again.

Although Christie’s husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, and his crew sought artifacts from 4000 B.C. civilizations and earlier, Christie’s diaries of their digs illumine Middle Eastern civilization in the 1930s and 1940s. Her stories show acceptance, good humor, cleverness, and curiosity regarding Syrian, Armenian, Turkish, Serbian, and Arab cultures as well as frustrations of their conflicting religious beliefs and primitive living conditions. Furthermore, the reader gains a clear understanding that Christie loves these people despite difficulties of living and working there for months at a time. In her words, “For I love that gentle fertile country and its simple people, who know how to laugh and how to enjoy life; who are idle and gay, and who have dignity, good manners, and a great sense of humour, and to whom death is not terrible.”

I marveled at Christie’s pluck and aplomb facing dust storms, scorching desert heat, cockroaches, mice, bats, no plumbing, no roads, and unreliable vehicles, among other obstacles. I enjoyed the frequent humor in her descriptions and laughed out loud at some stories. Her observations of the people on their archaeological teams as well as the locals they encountered fascinated me; she showed such acceptance and good humor. Even when the British visitors clearly knew they were being taken advantage of by local authorities, they just grinned and aimed for win-win solutions. I so enjoyed going along on Christie’s happy, sporting adventures.

The only downside to this book is its lack of maps. Today’s maps don’t show relevant towns and boundaries from 70 years ago. Also, Christie often refers to routes, rivers, and tells (such as Tell Halaf and Tell Brak, mounds indicating ancient villages) that I’d like to be able to picture. Photos of people, places, vehicles, and operations would also have enhanced my experience.

Come, Tell Me How You Live is itself a lively, entertaining sociology-anthropology study. Christie's joy in being among Middle Eastern peoples is evident.