Saturday, March 26, 2016

Poem: Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike

Celebrating the real meaning of Easter.
Happy Easter, friends! The weekend has crept up on me unawares; and when it got here, it turned out to be Easter. It also happens to be a lot of other things worth celebrating: yesterday was March 25th, the old Festival of the Annunciation, also thought to be the original date of Good Friday; also the medieval New Year; also (because Tolkien liked to reference these things) the Fall of Sauron and the end of the Third Age.

Today, on a more sordidly materialistic note, is the 26th, which is also the one-year anniversary of the publication of Pendragon's Heir. To celebrate that, it's on sale on Kindle this week for just $0.99. Do avail yourselves of this opportunity if you haven't already :).

And because I have come to the end of this week so unprepared, and because it is Easter, this week I'd like to share a poem. This is Seven Stanzas at Easter by John Updike.

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Over the last year I've enjoyed reading aloud with my sisters for the first time in years. Mostly I'm trying to introduce them to good books they haven't read previously, and which I haven't read myself in a number of years. Three Men in a Boat, which Wikipedia informs me came in second on Esquire's list of The 50 Funniest Books Ever, was the perfect candidate.

Revisiting this book was a real delight, but leaves me with the dilemma of trying to categorise it. Is it a novel? I thought so when I first read it, but it has no discernible plot, and is actually based on a two-week boating trip taken by the author and two friends up the Thames. Is it a guide-book? Well, that was the original intention, and no doubt you'll learn a fair bit about the Thames between London and Oxford from this book, but even if you've never stepped inside a boat in your life and don't ever want to go to England, you'll still find this book a perfect hoot. Is it a memoir? Not really; several of the characters and no doubt a number of the anecdotes are a little too tall and ridiculous for that.
It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. 
What it is is a comedic classic that tends to reduce the readers to suffocating shrieks of laughter. There's the medical situation of the narrator, who has everything except housemaid's knee. There is Harris's encounter with the swans. There is the description of the special pain experienced by those trying to do anything in a house occupied by a courting couple. There is a photograph gone terribly wrong. There is the supreme, never-to-be-forgotten incident of the tinned pineapple.

Or really--just read it and find out.
It must have been much like this when that foolish boy Henry VIII. was courting his little Anne. People in Buckinghamshire would have come upon them unexpectedly when they were mooning round Windsor and Wraysbury, and have exclaimed, “Oh! you here!” and Henry would have blushed and said, “Yes; he’d just come over to see a man;” and Anne would have said, “Oh, I’m so glad to see you! Isn’t it funny? I’ve just met Mr. Henry VIII. in the lane, and he’s going the same way I am.”
I was surprised, on this re-read, to see how fresh and up-to-date the book seems. You wouldn't think that a book published in 1889 would still be so much of a scream, given the changing cultural context, but the humour in Three Men in a Boat is evergreen and will keep on convulsing readers, I hope, in 3249 AD. Which is not to say that parts of the book don't seem a little naff. Jerome's original intent to write a guidebook peeks out every now and then, in serious passages which almost seem funny because they are written in such garishly purple prose. But none of these go on for very long, and Jerome gets us right back into the jokes, which mostly consist of preposterous anecdotes and side-splitting meditations upon everything from small dogs to blackmail.
We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon, it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep!” After a cup of tea (two spoonsful for each cup, and don’t let it stand more than three minutes), it says to the brain, “Now, rise, and show your strength. Be eloquent, and deep, and tender; see, with a clear eye, into Nature and into life; spread your white wings of quivering thought, and soar, a god-like spirit, over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!”
Three Men in a Boat has been outrageously popular ever since it was first published more than a hundred years ago. If you love English humour at all (and if you don't, you must not have a pulse), you should definitely read this.

Find Three Men in a Boat on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Elizabeth Marie Pope is an author (of vintage YA historical fantasy) whose books I've been waiting to try out for quite a long time. My opportunity came a few short months back when I finally tracked her books down on Open Library (which is an amazing source for vintage and otherwise hard-to-find books!). I read The Sherwood Ring just before Christmas, and found it every bit as adorable as I'd ever heard it was, though I had a couple of philosophical cautions; but my interest was whetted in Pope's other book, The Perilous Gard, when a friend told me it was by far her favourite of the two.

At first, I was a little unsure about this. From the book's description, I half expected it to be a typical pro-pagan narrative about the niceness and feminist smarts of pre-Christian Celtic culture:
In 1558, while exiled by Queen Mary Tudor to a remote castle known as Perilous Gard, young Kate Sutton becomes involved in a series of mysterious events that lead her to an underground world peopled by Fairy Folk—whose customs are even older than the Druids’ and include human sacrifice.
Well. Yikes. Was I wrong. I obviously didn't read the description quite carefully enough:
whose customs include human sacrifice.
 And so. And so...

Katherine Sutton is clumsy, tart, clever...and accustomed to getting the blame for the crazy schemes thought up by her impulsive sister Alicia. So she isn't really surprised when an ill-advised letter to Queen Mary complaining about living conditions at Hatfield Manor with Princess Elizabeth results in her own exile to a castle in the craggy forests of Derbyshire. Upon her arrival, Kate is mystified by the inhabitants' suspicious behaviour, the mysterious Holy Well in the valley behind the castle, the old legends of elves and fairies surrounding the castle itself...and the peculiar behaviour of Christopher Heron, the younger brother of the castle's lord, who lives in a leper's hut eking out an agonising penance for the disappearance of a child for whom he was responsible. When Kate figures out what happened to little Cecily, Christopher comes up with a wild plan to recover her from the half-legendary People of the Hill--and Kate, almost against her will, is also swept into the strange land under the Hill.

I was astonished to find how many elements The Perilous Gard shared with my own new release, The Bells of Paradise--to the extent that I'm glad I didn't read the former until after the latter's publication. Both stories include elements of the old tale of Tam Lin--The Perilous Gard is an intriguing retelling of the story. Both stories are set during the reign of Queen Mary, and the accession of Elizabeth I strikes a note of resolution near the end. And both stories take place in the wild woods of Derbyshire.

Unlike Bells, however, The Perilous Gard demythologises Tam Lin and the fairies somewhat. Kate, a very rational, sensible heroine, discounts out of hand the idea of anything being particularly magical about the People of the Hill. The ending gives no more than a hint that they might be anything but very different, very strange human pagans. Now, normally I don't like it when modernists suck all the magic out of old legends. Tales like King Arthur and the Trojan War lose all their stature when they're retold in strictly mundane terms. The Perilous Gard, however, avoids this trap in two ways. One of those ways is by telling a story of real emotional import, a story with a great sense of beauty and nobility. The other way is how Pope gives us a wonderful counter-myth to the ugly, bloody pagan myth of the People of the Hill: a very clear, unambiguous Christian message. I was so stunned with this I almost couldn't believe my eyes when I first encountered it:
"How can you tell what I meant to do? How can I? How can anyone? I think the damned souls in hell must spend half their time wondering what it was that they really meant to do."
"If you think the damned in hell spend their time doing that, then you can't know very much about the damned in hell," Kate retorted furiously. "I am utterly at squares with this childish dealing. Why in the name of heaven don't you go down to the village and make a proper confession to the priest and let him tell you what penance you ought to be laying on yourself? You aren't one of the damned in hell. We're all of us under the Mercy."
As I've often told people, you can include just about any Christian theme in a story so long as it fits organically into the context of the people you're writing about. All the same, I was staggered by how unapologetic, and yet how fitting, this theme was. In this story, the pagans were bad (though not without their own cultural beauty and grace), and the Christians were good. And the Christian myth was pitted against the pagan myth and came away triumphant, in a way that fitted very well into the story and yet at the same time was delightfully uncompromising.

I was stunned.

Add to this a tale that wrenches your heart, an often witty and hilarious romance (and if it's a little predictably mid-century in flavour, well, it's still very cute), and a gorgeous writing style that fleshes out the setting beautifully, and you have one of the best works of girls' YA I've ever been privileged to read. My only complaint, really, would be that the world-building for the Under the Hill segments was a little underdone in some regards. But apart from that, I loved this book, was utterly gripped, and deeply satisfied.

Find The Perilous Gard on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Open Library.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

First off: Thank you all for helping make the Bells of Paradise release such a party! For just a few more days, till March 5th, you can still get a beautiful free mp3 download of inspiration song Down in Yon Forest with your purchase of the Bells of Paradise ebook. 

And moving on to the review...

I'll be honest: I've been putting off writing this review. I wanted to do a bit more study on the French Revolution before I dipped in, but the sad fact is that I simply don't have the time. So I'll do my best with what I've got.

A Tale of Two Cities is only the second Charles Dickens novel I've read as an adult. I'd read some of his shorter classics years ago (A Christmas Carol, A Child's History of England) and was also traumatised at about age five or six when my mother read us Oliver Twist. Dickens, therefore, has never been a favourite of mine. However, everyone highly recommended A Tale of Two Cities to me, and in addition, we had an illustrated edition when I was growing up, which I often snooped through, enjoying the dramatic illustrations, usually when I was supposed to be doing my maths (Sorry, Mum). Because I was so uninterested in Dickens as a general proposition, I never tried to avoid spoilers. I'd even read bits and pieces of the final chapters, and of course I knew exactly what the famous "far, far better thing" line referred to.

As a result, when I actually went to read the book properly a few months back, I was thoroughly spoilered. It's a rare story that can still grip and thrill you, even after you know exactly what happens at the end. And to my utter astonishment, even though I'd even read bits of it before, the ending of A Tale of Two Cities blew me away. It was unputdownable and incredibly powerful. Five stars.

What I didn't like so much was the first 75% of the book.

Part of this was for philosophical reasons. As Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile will tell you, she and I have a running disagreement about Dickens. When I read Bleak House, I came away convinced that that the book demonstrated a far from Christian worldview, which, with Rousseau, saw mankind as basically good, corrupted not by indwelling sin but by the outward pressures of society. As I slogged through the first three hundred pages of Two Cities, I saw plenty more to convince me that this was Dickens's ruling philosophy, not only of the world but also of the French Revolution. While I'd like to give Dickens the benefit of the doubt, this (as well as his highly irregular personal life) disposes me to think he must not have been more than culturally influenced by Christianity.

So, in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens is fairly even-handed in portraying both the revolutionaries and the aristocrats as vicious, depraved, and animalistic. I was surprised to discover that his treatment of the revolutionaries in this story is seen by many modern critics as unduly critical. I would have thought this a trick question. You have people lynching other people from lamp-posts and participating in things with names like "The September Massacres" and "The Reign of Terror", and you want me to spend a long time trying to figure out who were the goodies and who were the baddies?

But although all his protagonists are well-born, it's the aristocrats that Dickens saddles with the heaviest amount of guilt for the blood-letting of the French Revolution. He paints pre-revolution France as a place where the few rich spent their days mercilessly oppressing the many poor. He gives us vignette after vignette describing the sufferings of the crazed and overburdened poor at the hands of their oppressors. He gives us only one admirable aristocratic Frenchman, who redeems himself by quarreling with his uncle, disinheriting himself, and moving to England--apparently the only conceivable way for a French aristocrat to cleanse himself of his family's wickedness. Finally, Dickens concludes that it is these oppressions which have driven the lower classes of France completely out of their minds with grief and rage. The poor wretches who slaughter the aristocrats in the Revolution would have been quiet and happy if they had only been treated more kindly: their savagery is the result not of indwelling sin but of outer social pressures.

I didn't find this a particularly convincing picture. Again, I don't know quite enough about the history to say for certain; but I do know several things. I know, as an article of faith, that everyone is responsible for his own ill-doing, and that the heart is corrupted not by what is imposed upon it by outside forces but by what comes out of it. No matter what the outside pressure, Thou Shalt Not Kill is still a binding moral obligation. I know that the Revolution was in large part driven by extremist atheist and Enlightenment thinkers, many of them of the aristocratic class, who (the Duc d'Orleans, for instance) may have intentionally fomented revolution and then attempted to ride it to power; and that many of those who bore the brunt of the Revolution were commoners caught in the bloody mill. I know that, if nothing else, before the extremists grabbed control of the Revolution, many quiet yet extensive reforms were being put into place, with the king's full support, for several years before the bloodshed began. In conclusion, I thought Dickens's characterisation of the whole affair something along the lines of, "The aristocrats got what they had coming, and if anyone else had been willing to do something for the peasantry then they wouldn't have had to help themselves." I think the picture was a good bit different to that. But then, as I say, I haven't studied it in terrific depth.

Also, it may just be me, but I find Dickens's social commentary generally smug and irritating. I reserve particular distaste for the character of Lucie Manette, an almost unbearably vapid heroine, whose only apparent distinguishing characteristics are youth, beauty, insufferable (and inspecific) goodness, and a propensity to faint at the drop of a hat.

That after three hundred pages of teeth-gritted determination and nose-holding, this novel was able to turn around knock me senseless with one of the greatest endings I have ever read, is a testament to Dickens's sheer storytelling powers. Up until the last hundred pages, I had been distinctly unimpressed with the book and everyone in it (except Miss Pross) (Miss Pross was a duck). It was then that the Good Bits started, and built up to a thundering pitch of epic heartstring-rending that will make you howl if you are at all human. I won't spoil it for you (if by any chance you haven't figured it out already); I'll only say that this is some of the finest storytelling you will ever see, and worth every page that it'll take you to work up to it. I adored it, and while I may have strident differences with much of Dickens's worldview, I'd still give my eye-teeth to be able to write like that.

In conclusion, I both liked and disliked this Dickens more than Bleak House. It had a much better ending; but I found the first three-quarters much harder going. Next time I read Dickens, I plan to tackle Great Expectations, which by the sounds of it I'll find much easier to like.

Find A Tale of Two Cities on Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

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