Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Classics Club: The Thirty-Nine Steps

(about the Classics Club)

Despite never actually having read Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), I was familiar with it as one of the earliest hero-on-the-run suspense-thriller-mysteries, and one that was influential on the genre as a whole.  I take a historical interest in my favorite genre, and felt I needed to read it.

What a grand adventure!  I had to think that this is the precursor to those heroes so prevalent in today's thrillers (you know, the ones that get out of bed, get beat up, shot, drowned and beat up again all before they take the dame back to bed) but yet it didn't seem hokey.  Hannay was just this side of believable, like a hero should.  He was crush-worthy for the female reader and role model-worthy for the males.

The action of this book takes place just before the Great War starts (but is written after the War started, so it is written with the knowledge that the War will start, if that makes sense) so it also made me think a lot about the War, about patriotism during that War, and about how this book would have been the most excellent sort of propaganda.  It depicts an average man who realizes the fate of Great Britain, if not the world, rests on knowledge he has, so he steps up to the plate and does what he can.  I hate to borrow the overused phrase "stiff upper lip" for Blighty, but that is exactly it. Hannay is willing to die--even as an expatriate Scotsman just over from Rhodesia--to protect home and country.  Just an average guy (okay, maybe a little above average in strength and endurance but we'll not quibble) and he single-handedly beats the Germans at their own game.  Pretty good stuff to be reading in the muddy, infected, hell-on-earth trenches.

So yes, I started thinking about what a fun adventure it was, and ended by mourning the slaughtered Tommys who probably died a little happier for having read this.

 I suffered nostalgia for a time I've never experienced--that time, right before the Great War, when a speeding car went 40 mph and putting on working man's clothing could disguise a gentleman, when airplanes were a novelty and to be hatless was unconscionable.   I felt sad for the innocence that was lost in that War, sad that books like this--new as it was--would only have a few more years to exist, a few more years before violence and sex become the staples of fiction.  (Let me note here that there is no romance in this book--not even one slightly attractive woman.  How refreshing!)

I felt patriotic, too, for a country that isn't mine, for a cause that is hard to remember.

I also felt a longing for Scotland.  Apparently Buchan was Scottish; his descriptions of Scotland are lovely.  I've always wanted to visit and the mental images of Hannay's on-foot adventures to the highlands (or was it the lowlands?) added fuel to that flame.

Most of all, though, I felt satisfied by a good read.  It was a darn good yarn, and I enjoyed every moment of it--and for some reason, especially the ginger biscuits.  I'll never eat gingersnaps without thinking of Hannay hiding in the heather, munching on ginger biscuits.

Patriotism!  This was the subtle undertone and blatant overtone throughout the entire book.  Even an expatriate will answer the call to save Great Britain when it comes, because of natural patriotism.

 It is a level of dedication and love for country that I don't think we, in the U.S., will ever experience again. As such, it was almost a novel idea to me, here in this skeptical, cynical age.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Classics Club: Flame and Shadow

 I first read Sara Teasdale as an immature 11 or 12 year old, and then multiple times in my (still immature)  mid-teens.  It has been many years since I have read any of her poetry, and I was curious as to whether my reaction would be much different than it was all those years ago.  I chose the volume Flame and Shadow (1920), as opposed to her Pulitzer Prize winning 1919 Love Songs, to fit in with another reading challenge.

First off, I was interested in how the title, Flame and Shadow, fit in with the poems.  I noticed several direct references to flame and fire, as well as indirect references to the fires of romantic love.  The "shadow" theme was more subtle, referencing the shadows of pain, loneliness and depression that is evident throughout many of the poems in the volume.

Sara Teasdale
I was still drawn to her poems, but not often  to the same ones that I had loved as a child.  I also saw a depth that I had not seen, recognized (and empathized with) her depression and also understood more of the (now historical) allusions.

I found it surprisingly hard to accustom myself to her more traditional, lyric style, after years of reading modern free verse.  I had to change my mindset, and not think it juvenile (as modern poets often want readers to believe) that her couplets rhymed.

 I was immediately caught up in her word pictures, and could easily visualize the scenes she described.  Teasdale and I share a love for the moon, winter and night, and I felt the feeling I feel when I am walking in the moonlight on a winter's evening.  I also felt the depth of her depression and loneliness in several of the poems.

I wasn't as interested in her love poems, as I have become jaded in my old age and find myself feeling superior to the love poetry.  I don't know why; I'm just explaining the feeling I get, and certainly am not justifying it or even saying I'm right. Despite that, I did feel compassion for her while reading several of them, and even found a connection to some of the more "happy" love poems.  This shows the power of her verse, I think, that it can transcend time and ennui to create a connection.

"There Will Come Soft Rains" was one of my favorites, long before I understood that it referred to the tragedy of the Great War's trenches or to the historically early idea of warfare wiping out man, and decades before I read Bradbury's short story of the same name.  As a result of coming to understand the poem in historical context, and loving the Bradbury story, I have a deeper love for this particular one.

"There Will Come Soft Rains"

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Becoming Myself: Embracing God's Dream of You by Stasi Eldredge

I received the advanced copy of this novel from the Amazon Vine program in return for my honest review.

Becoming Myself is an encouraging book written to help Christian women "lay down their past" and embrace who they are in Christ. Eldredge writes frankly about her feelings of failure and short comings. She directs comments to the reader as if she and the reader were carrying on a conversation, creating a very personal feel to the book.

Eldredge's first chapters deal with finding healing for the emotional wounds that can be caused by one's mother. She is very open about her own experience, and bases her advice and encouragement on those experiences. Happily, this is not a wound I have, so I was not able to connect with this, but it did seem that it would be beneficial for adult women who bear scars from childhood.

She also discusses the importance of female friendships and how best to nurture and keep those friendships. Though this has been presented in other contexts by other writers, Eldredge does a nice job with this and again makes it very personal.

Her main theme throughout the book is to find self-worth through Christ and not through the eyes of how one perceives that OTHERS see her. Despite this, Eldredge still, most likely unintentionally, connects self-worth with beauty, size, weight and even marriage. She frequently mentions her size, how her self-worth was caught up in her larger size but now it's not, all the while mentioning that she has lost quite a bit of weight. As another example, the word "beauty" is used to mean both how God sees us, and the standard the world sets for women. Her good intentions are there, but her actual meaning becomes fuzzy at times; it seems almost as though she, too, is still trying to find self-worth outside of society's view of what a woman should be.

In the final chapters, Eldredge focuses on freeing oneself from fear, becoming a Godly woman like Mary, and seeing the vision that God has of you. She gives lots of Bible verses, personal anecdotes and stories from friends, but I never felt like she actually gave solid information on how this was to be done.

The premise of this book is great, and she does provide good insight in some areas. However, in the end, I came away with a "feel good" message, but no actual working plan of how to achieve the goals she suggests.

On a personal note: for those that have "mother wounds" and that still have any sort of difficulties with or stemming from their relationship with their mother, I recommend borrowing this book from the library when it is released and reading those first chapters.  I was struck by how open Eldredge was with that issue and to me, it seemed that it could be very beneficial.  The rest of the book contained, for me, nothing new or revelation-ary that couldn't be found just as well explained, if not much better, by other Christian writers.  

Note: This is my opinion; on Amazon, 78% of the reviews were 5 stars.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Book of Secrets by Elizabeth Joy Arnold

  • The Book of Secrets
  •  Elizabeth Joy Arnold
    Paperback: 464 pages
    Publisher: Bantam; First Edition edition (July 2, 2013)
    5/5 stars

I received an advanced copy of this book from Amazon Vine in return for an honest review.

"The Book of Secrets is a complex novel that tells a story in the present, as it simultaneously recounts the known past and uncovers past secrets. It is narrated by Chloe Sinclair, a bibliophile and bookstore owner. She and Nate have been married over twenty years, and have begun to drift apart. One evening, Nate is gone, leaving only a letter telling her that he has gone back to their childhood home to deal with a family crisis. Chloe is hurt at his departure, at his secretiveness and at his willingness to return to a place that holds emotional scars for them both. She then finds Nate's secret book, a journal he has kept in code. As she begins to decode it, both she and reader return to the past, face the future and find answers to secrets.

Arnold very skillfully allows the reader only glimpses of events that were so pivotal in shaping Nate, Chloe and their relationship. She allows the reader to guess, to anticipate and to be surprised. Her prose is beautiful and descriptive, drawing both people and places in vivid pictures.

In addition, Arnold celebrates words and literature with the Book of Secrets. She weaves various classics as integral parts to the story throughout, and the joy of words, especially the right words, as another recurring theme. With this novel, Arnold gives, not only a love story of people, but of people for books.

The Book of Secrets is an absorbing novel of love, loss, betrayal, deception and books.  It is also one that is certain to appeal to fellow bibliophiles."

On a personal note, despite it's size of over 400 pages, I read this in two nights.  It was quite engrossing and I would certainly recommend it.  Yes, there were bits that I didn't like, but were overshadow by the overall quality of the rest of the book.