Book Review: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Ben-HurTwo young men sat in a garden in first century Judea. They had been close childhood friends, but now they realized they must come to a parting of the ways. Their culture, religion, education, and training pitted them against each other. One was a Roman, Messala; one was a Jew, Judah Ben-Hur.

But their parting signaled more than the loss of friendship. A procession of the Roman governor and his guard passed by Judah’s house one day. As Judah and his sister leaned over the parapet to watch, his hand accidentally loosened a roof tile, which fell and hit the official, knocking him off his horse. The guards stormed the house, and Judah was accused of attempted assassination by none other than Messala. Judah’s mother and sister were seized and taken away, the Hur home was confiscated by the Roman government, and Judah was made a galley slave in a Roman ship.

In Judah’s third year as a galley slave, Quintas Arrius took over the ship to combat pirates. Arrius noticed Judah and asked about him. He was stunned to learn that Judah was the son of someone he had known, a prince in Judea. When a sea battle wrecked the ship, Judah saved the life of Arrius. Arrius adopted Judah as his son, had him trained in Roman fighting, and left him all his wealth.

Judah had two aims in life: to find his mother and sister, and to exact revenge on Rome in general and Messala in particular. He found opportunity to face Messala in a chariot race.

In his travels, Judah heard of a man named Jesus who was the source of much controversy. Some thought Jesus was the promised Messiah, arrived to set up his kingdom. Most thought the kingdom would be an immediate physical one, unseating and defeating the Romans. A few thought the Messiah’s kingdom would be a spiritual one. Judah threw all his influence and training into getting an army ready for the day Jesus would announce himself as King. But Judah also pondered Jesus’s teaching and wonders who he really was.

The subtitle of Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace is A Tale of the Christ. Although Christ is physically in the plot a short amount of time, He is a subject of consideration for much of the book. The story actually begins with three wise men meeting in the desert, discussing their backgrounds and how they came to faith in the one true God and were led by a star. Then they journeyed together to find the newborn king. Some twenty years later, the lone surviving magi, Balthasar, came back to Judea to see the now adult King take His place. This was the first novel with Jesus as a major character, and though Wallace made up scenes, descriptions, and actions involving Christ, as an author he respectfully did not put words in Jesus’s mouth. The only words Christ speaks in the story come from the Bible.

This story was spurred by a conversation Wallace had on a train with noted atheist Robert Ingersoll. Though Wallace wasn’t particularly religious, he felt Ingersoll was wrong. Wallace felt ashamed that he did not know more. He decided to research Christianity, eventually came up with the idea of framing the story and teaching of Jesus in a novel, and became something of a believer himself in the process. His novel became an all-time best-seller.

Many are familiar with the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur. The book, of course, goes into much more detail, and there are a few differences in some plot details between the two. (One interesting tidbit – but don’t read if you don’t want too much of a spoiler! In the film, Messala cheated in the chariot race by having spikes on his wheels with which he attacked Ben-Hur’s chariot. In the book, however, it was Ben-Hur who clipped Messala’s wheel in a slight action unnoticed by the crowd, causing the latter’s chariot to wreck. Though Ben-Hur was out for revenge, this isn’t treated as cheating in the book – in preparing for the chariot race, Ben-Hur noted the need to be alert to the Romans’ tricks. In fact, earlier in full sight of the crowd, Messala used his whip to strike Ben-Hur’s horses, causing them to leap forward. So it seems like this kind of thing was part of the race and not penalized.)

One of my favorite passages in the book comes after Messala tried to upset Ben-Hur’s horses and throw them off course:

The four sprang forward affrighted. No hand had ever been laid upon them except in love; they had been nurtured ever so tenderly; and as they grew, their confidence in man became a lesson to men beautiful to see. What should such dainty natures do under such indignity but leap as from death? Forward they sprang as with one impulse, and forward leaped the car. Past question, every experience is serviceable to us. Where got Ben-Hur the large hand and mighty grip which helped him now so well? Where but from the oar with which so long he fought the sea? And what was this spring of the floor under his feet to the dizzy eccentric lurch with which in the old time the trembling ship yielded to the beat of staggering billows, drunk with their power? So he kept his place, and gave the four free rein, and called to them in soothing voice, trying merely to guide them round the dangerous turn; and before the fever of the people began to abate, he had back the mastery.

Ben-Hur’s time rowing as a galley slave, which he probably thought of a lost period of his life, gave him the strength and training to handle this.

I watched the film and read the book some years ago. I enjoyed reading it again, although I found it rather wordy and overly descriptive (naturally, since it was published in 1880), which I don’t remember thinking the first time. But I enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t take my theology from it, especially the frequent grouping of “love, faith, and good works” as a way to “win heaven.” Wallace did a lot of research and explained a lot of history, and he gives a realistic description of the Jewish and Roman cultures and what Jews in that day might have been expecting. There is an interesting article here about Lew Wallace’s life and career.

I mostly listened to this audiobook version but read parts in the Kindle version. The narrator sounded a little bored in places, but did a good job in others. I listened to samples of other narrators, but none of the others sounded any better. The sound quality is one of the worst I have ever received in a book by Audible – there are several places where it sounds like it was a recording of a cassette tape that had been pinched or bent in places.

I recently learned that Wallace’s granddaughter, Carol, read his book for the first time and enjoyed it, but thought it needed to be rewritten in less “stilted” language, so she did so. I’d be interested to read that some time.

A 2016 remake of the film changes the plot in many places (making Ben-Hur and Messala adopted brothers, for instance), so I am not interested in seeing it.

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Book Review: He Fell In Love With His Wife

He Fell In Love With His WifeI first encountered He Fell in Love With His Wife by Edward Payson Roe at Carrie’s review at Reading to Know (which is currently offline, so I can’t link to it just now.) It sounded so good that I got it when it came up for free on the Kindle, but I just got to it the last several days.

This is the sweetest story – not in a syrupy or cloying way. It’s the first book in a long time that had me trying to squeeze in extra minutes to read and missing the characters when I finished.

The story opens with James Holcroft at a low point. His only ambition was to enjoy a quiet life on the farm where he grew up. He had married a quiet, sensible girl he had known since childhood, and though their relationship wasn’t a highly romantic one, they had “something that often wears better—mutual respect and affection.”

But his wife had died a year before, and on top of missing her, he found he was having a hard time working the farm alone. He was just about to give it up, but he decided to try hiring a housekeeper. The two he tried, however, made his life much worse.

He decided to sell his stock, went into town for that purpose, and stopped to talk with his friend who ran the poorhouse. His friend told him of a woman there, Alida, who was in dire straits. She had been deeply wronged and felt horribly ashamed and feared town gossip, even though her troubles were not her fault. She currently had almost nothing to her name.

Holcroft’s heart went out to the woman after he heard her story, and eventually he devised a plan to help them both. His previous housekeepers were older widows, and one had a daughter, so it was acceptable for him to employ them at his out-of-the-way farm. But Alida was near his own age, so he suggested that they have a “business” marriage in name only.  She could help him on the farm, and he would provide for her, and the marriage would protect her reputation. The quietness and remoteness of his home appealed to her, and he seemed a kind man, but she was afraid the stain of her background would taint him. After a lot of discussion, though, they agreed.

Of course, the title tells what happened. This isn’t the first story of a “business” or arranged marriage where the couple truly came to love one other. But this avoids silly, flighty romance and portrays a mature story of two wounded souls finding healing and respite, and for Holcroft, a faith he thought he had lost.

Some parts, especially with the first two housekeepers, are quite comical, but the rest of the story is full of warmth and pathos. Since it’s written in an older style (it was published in 1886) it’s more descriptive than current books, but to me the story flowed nicely without getting bogged down as some older narratives do.

Just to forewarn some of you, there is one expression in the book that today is considered quite vulgar, but I think it can’t have meant then what it does today, partly because Roe was a Presbyterian preacher, and partly because I hadn’t heard the term myself until the last few years. I don’t usually read or listen to much where I know I am going to come across vulgar terms, so I am sure it has been around longer than I was aware. Still, nothing in the character of the book would lend itself to thinking it was used then as it is now. Plus Holcroft reacts to some rabblerousers  in a way we’d consider violent today, but it seems to have been taken in stride then.

I wasn’t sure if this book would count as a classic: I wanted to include it for my Back to the Classics challenge under the category of a “classic by an author that is new to you,” but, just because a book is old doesn’t mean it is a classic. However, according to Wikipedia, Roe’s books were “very popular in their day,” and they are still being read for enjoyment today, so that sounds like a classic to me!

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: Where the Red Fern Grows

Red FernI had seen the 1974 film version of Where the Red Fern Grows when my two older boys were elementary-school age, some 25 or so years ago. I enjoyed the film, but I don’t remember if I knew then it was based on a book. I wish we had read it back then! But I was glad to finally listen to it via audiobook this month.

The book begins with an adult Billy Coleman leaving work and coming upon a dogfight. When he sees the dog being attacked is a hound like one he used to have, he rescues it, takes it home, feeds it, and lets it rest, then releases it. That stirs up memories of the dogs he used to have.

Billy had grown up in a poor family in the Ozarks. There was nothing he wanted more than a dog to go coon hunting with – but not just any dog. He wanted hounds. His parents could have gotten him a mongrel dog, but they could not afford a special breed, no matter how much Billy pleaded.

I suppose there’s a time in practically every young boy’s life when he’s affected by that wonderful disease of puppy love. I don’t mean the kind a boy has for the pretty little girl that lives down the road. I mean the real kind, the kind that has four small feet and a wiggly tail, and sharp little teeth that can gnaw on a boy’s finger; the kind a boy can romp and play with, even eat and sleep with.

One day Billy found a magazine some hunters had left behind at their campground and found an ad for two Redbone Coonhounds for $50. Without telling anyone, he performed odd jobs, dug up and sold worms for bait, picked and sold blackberries, and did anything he could think of to earn money. It took him two years, and when he finally showed his savings to his grandfather and told him what they were for, his grandpa helped him order the dogs. But the dogs would be shipped to a town more than a day’s journey away. Billy took off on foot alone to pick up his dogs and bring them back, helped by a kindly station master.

The dogs were a brother and sister. Billy named the brother, who was strong and quick to react, Old Dan. The thoughtful, intelligent girl dog was named Little Ann.

Billy went to work training his dogs to hunt coons, selling coon hides and giving the money to his father, and having many adventures with his dogs. Tragedy struck a couple of times, the second occurrence shaking Billy’s faith.

This is a wonderful “boy and his dogs” and coming of age story, even if readers are not all that interested in hunting. Strong themes of loyalty, perseverance, family, and faith undergird the novel. There are a couple of gruesome parts (one boy has a hunting accident with an ax, a dog in a fight with a mountain lion is severely injured), and the author tells them realistically but not gratuitously. The ending is sad but ultimately hopeful.

People have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. One never knows what they’ll do. You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love-the deepest kind of love.

Wikipedia shares the interesting background story of how Wilson Rawls wrote the story, destroyed his manuscript, then wrote it again at his wife’s urging. I also enjoyed reading 12 Things You Might Not Know About Where the Red Fern Grows. Though Rawls wrote for children, his first publisher oddly marketed the book to adults. Sales were slow until Rawls spoke at a conference for teachers and librarians who took the samples of his book back to their schools and libraries, where children loved it.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Anthony Heald. I didn’t know until just now that there was a 2003 remake of the movie. Some day I would like to see it.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Frankenstein

I had always associated Frankenstein by Mary Shelley with the black and white horror movies of my childhood. Since I don’t really care for horror movies, I never had an interest in reading it. But in recent years I’ve heard several people say that the book is different from the movies, that the movies provide more of a caricature than a reflection of the story. So I decided to give the book a try.

I was quite surprised! While I would never call Frankenstein nor this type of book a favorite, the story was much more compelling than I originally thought it would be. It was conceived as a result of a gathering with Mary, her lover Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and others, when they were telling ghost stories and decided to see who could write the best scary story. Mary started this story when she was 18 and it was published anonymously when she was 20. Later editions featured her name as the author.

Frankenstein is often erroneously thought to be the monster’s name: it’s actually the name of the creator. The monster is never named.

The story actually begins with a Captain Robert Walton on a voyage writing home to his sister. He has a thirst for knowledge, a penchant for the “marvelous,” a desire to accomplish something great, and a longing for a true like-minded friend. While in an icy region Walton’s crew spies a gigantic creature driving a sledge guided by dogs across the ice. The next day they come across a man “in wretched condition” on another sledge on an ice floe. The crew brings the man onto the boat and Walton tries to help him. As they talk, the man, who introduces himself as Victor Frankenstein, recognizes in Walton the same ambition and thirst for knowledge that he’d had, so Frankenstein tells Walton his story as a warning.

Victor’s story is recorded in his own words. He had been raised by a good family  in Geneva and had an interest in the sciences. Early in his life he had come across books on alchemy (not the study of turning metals into gold, but “finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life.” according to Dictionary.com). His university studies increased his knowledge to the point that he discovered “the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.”

With feverish excitement he decided to test this knowledge, assembling a new being from body parts of corpses he had been studying. But once the creature was made alive, Victor was repulsed and horrified.

The monster escaped and Victor fell ill. When Victor finally got better, he learned that his younger brother had been murdered, so he went home. While walking alone, Victor saw the monster and felt immediately that the monster was responsible for the murder.

In a later confrontation, the monster told Victor his own story of becoming aware, learning about himself and his world, and being met by fear and hatred from other people. He finally found an abandoned building where he could take shelter. The building was close enough to a small family that he could see their interactions, hear them, and learn from them. He grew to care for them and even did them little favors like chopping wood and setting it beside their cottage. He felt if he could introduce himself to the old, blind father and gain his sympathy, then the father could smooth the monster’s way with the rest of the family, and the creature would finally have someone to love and belong to. But that plan went awry and resulted in the monster’s being driven away.

So the monster found Victor, requested that he make a female monster, and promised that he and his mate would go away and not bother anyone. If Victor refused, the monster would take vengeance on all whom Victor loved. Victor vacillated: he was loathe to make another such creature, but if he did, he would be rid of them. But what if the female refused to go away quietly, and the two monsters wreaked havoc on the rest of the country?

I’ll leave the rest to you to discover what happened. I think my favorite section was the monster’s narrative of being nearly a blank slate and discovering his own impulses, like hunger, learning how to take care of what he needed, having a kindly attitude toward nature and mankind, feeling hurt by rejection which finally boiled over into hatred.

I was surprised to find that Victor was not a scientist as I had always thought, but a student. That explains a little bit why he didn’t have the maturity to think through his actions or to take responsibility for the monster.

Throughout the book both Victor and the monster take refuge in the beauty of nature. That’s not unusual in itself, but it is mentioned so often that I think it has to be Shelley’s contrast between the goodness of the natural and the evil of the unnatural. The fact that the final scenes take place in an icy, barren, dangerous area seems to indicate that both Victor and the monster had progressed far past the comforts of the beautiful, good, and natural.

Writing a scary story may have been Mary’s only purpose. But she may have been commentating on the dangers of pushing the boundaries of the technology of the day and the foolishness of judging by outward appearance. The original subtitle was The Modern Prometheus: in mythology, Prometheus formed humans out of clay, gave them life, and gave them fire though Zeus had forbidden it. For punishment Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock where an eagle ate his liver: since he was immortal, every day the liver regrew and the eagle ate it again.

A new edition was published in 1831 with a new preface. Schmoop says, “Shelley wasn’t the same bright-eyed 21 year old she’d been in 1818. By 1831, she had lost her husband and two of her children, and the revised edition has a grimmer tone. In the 1831 text, nature is a destructive machine; Victor is a victim of fate, not free will…” This is the version most people are familiar with.

I had a hard time choosing between the audiobooks read by Dan Stevens (Matthew of Downton Abbey) or Derek Jacobi. I finally went with Jacobi’s narration, because I had listened to audiobooks wonderfully read by him before, and he did a superb job with this. I don’t know that I will ever read or listen to this story again, but if I do I’d like to try out Steven’s version just to hear how he handled it. The text is also available here.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The First Four Years

One time when Laura Ingalls Wilder was asked why she didn’t write more books, she replied that the money she received from them cost her more in taxes. “She never found taxes on those who had labored their way to prosperity to be an incentive for even more labor.” But another time she said that if she wrote more, she’d have to get into some of the sad times of her life (I Remember Laura by Stephen W. Hines, pp. 102, 97, and 122).

The First Four Years was not originally part of the little House series, according to the introduction. The manuscript was found among Laura’s papers when she passed away, written on the same kind of tablets on which she had written her other books. Her daughter, Rose, entrusted it to her friend and heir Roger Lea MacBride. After Rose passed away, Roger met with Laura’s editors, and they discussed and thought over the issue and decided that, considering what Laura, Rose, and Laura’s fans would want, the manuscript should be published as is.

A fairly short book at 134 pages, it’s also straightforward, and it’s easy to imagine that Laura would have filled in and fleshed it out a bit more than this first draft. But it is still a great story, covering the first four years Laura and Almanzo were married.

They had a rough go of it those years, and I imagine this is what Laura was alluding to when she talked about getting into the sad times of her life.

The story opens just before their wedding, with Laura saying she didn’t want to marry a farmer. She did want to marry Almanzo, however, so she encouraged him to do something else for a living. After debating about the problems and benefits of farming, Almanzo proposed that they give it a three year trial, and Laura agreed.

They had a very simple ceremony, no honeymoon, and on Laura’s second day of marriage, she had to make a meal for all the threshers who came to help with that work. But she was happy to be in her own home. “Laura found doing work alone very different from helping Ma. But it was part of her job and she must do it, though she did hate the smell of hot lard, and the site of so much fresh meat ruined her appetite for any of it” (p. 30).

They enjoyed horseback riding in the warmer evenings and sitting by the fire on cold ones. They dealt with larger dangers of Indians and blizzards and smaller domestic ones of neighbors borrowing and not returning equipment. Soon baby Rose came to them, and Laura discovered “there was a good deal to taking care of babies” (p. 75).

But trials came, too – lost crops, against which they had borrowed money, diphtheria for Laura, a stroke for Almanzo, the loss of another baby, fire, ever-present debt.

Though these things took their toll, and they grieved, there was nothing else to do but pick up and go on. Almanzo seemed characterized by optimism, and though Laura struggled wondering how everything was ever going to work out, eventually she concluded “it would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle” (p. 133).

Once again I marvel at that pioneer spirit. Any one of these trials would send a modern person into depression and counseling for years (please know that I am not making light of depression or the need for counselors). How did people cope then with so much loss? It seems it was just accepted as a part of life. Everyone had struggles, not just the Wilders. Has our relative ease weakened us? I don’t know. But here and there we still find those whose “spirits rise for the struggle,” who overcome overwhelming odds.

I’m so thankful this book was found and published. I enjoyed the peek into Laura and Almanzo’s first years and am inspired by their example.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne opens in Hamburg in 1863, where Professor Otto Lidenbrock has just come home with a prized Icelandic runic manuscript which he is eagerly showing to his uninterested (but pretending to be interested) nephew, Axel, who is also his ward and assistant. The professor’s enthusiasm is diverted, however, when an old piece of paper falls out of the book and is discovered to have a message in code from “Arne Saknussemm!…another Icelander, a savant of the sixteenth century, a celebrated alchemist.” After hours of trying to decipher the code, and asserting that neither he nor anyone else in the house will eat until they have figured it out, he darts out of the room in frustration. Axel works on it a bit, and, to his own surprise, figures out the message – but then determines that his uncle will never know it lest he act upon it. Suffering from hunger, however, Axel finally yields the message, which is:

“Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jokul of Sneffels, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth; which I have done, Arne Saknussemm.”

And act upon it the professor does, immediately preparing for himself and Axel to go explore an extinct volcano called Sneffels (or Snæfell) in Iceland. Part of the professor’s interest is his regard for Saknussemm, but in addition there is a raging controversy about whether the center of the Earth is cold or hot, and this will be his chance to prove his thinking is right. They hire a quiet but handy hunter named Han as a guide, and their adventure begins, fraught with both excitement and danger.

My thoughts:

I have to admit I didn’t like this story nearly as well as the two other Verne books I have read, Around the World in 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I think part of it was that the scientific aspect was so improbable, but also the characters don’t change or grow much at all. There is some suspense in determining whether the Professor is an intrepid explorer contrasted with Axel’s neurotic cowardice, or whether Axel’s is the voice of reason vainly opposing the professor as a mad scientist. I did read somewhere that Axel is a teenager, which would make his behavior make more sense, but I tried to find that in the book and couldn’t locate it.

I listened to the audiobook pretty well read by Derek Perkins. My only quibble is that even though Axel is the narrator of the story, Mr. Perkins uses a different voices for him as the narrator or the character, when they should sound the same. The German accent only comes out when Axel the character is speaking.

I looked through the Project Gutenberg version online while searching for Axel’s age, and was surprised by some subtle humor I had missed in the recording. Usually it’s just the opposite: usually I catch nuances in listening that I miss while reading. I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this book, but if I ever do, I’ll read it next time and see if that makes a difference.

There are a variety of translations of this book, and one, for some reason, changes the names of the professor to Hardwigg and Axel to Harry or Henry and rewrites portions of the book. I’d avoid that one. Wikipedia has information on other translations as does this post.

I also would not have considered this a children’s book, and Common Sense Media says, “Verne was writing in an earlier era for a mostly adult audience, presumed, if they were literate enough to be reading novels for pleasure, to be very well educated. The vocabulary is advanced, the descriptions lengthy, and the scientific and literary references removed from the experience of most young readers. Experienced teens will enjoy it, and younger experienced listeners may enjoy hearing it read by an adult with the patience to stop often for explanations.” However, Wikipedia says it was originally published in a boys’ magazine.

Wikipedia also says, “The genre of subterranean fiction already existed long before Verne. However, the present book considerably added to its popularity and influenced later such writings. For example, Edgar Rice Burroughs explicitly acknowledged Verne’s influence on his own Pellucidar series.” So it has its place in literary history, and it was probably a lot more believable then, or, if nor believable, at least enjoyed as an adventure story.

Have you or your children ever read Journey to the Center of the Earth? What did you think of it?

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

 

Book Review: The Secret Garden and a Discussion of Magic in Children’s Books

Secret Garden I have mixed emotions about The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I’ll explain why in a moment.

The story opens with nine-year-old Mary Lennox in India with her family. Her father “had held a position under the English government and had always been busy and ill himself, and her mother had been a great beauty who cared only to go to parties and amuse herself with gay people. She had not wanted a little girl at all,” so Mary was left to the care of her Ayah. So as not to bother Mary’s mother and get in trouble, the Ayah and other servants gave Mary her way in everything, leading to her becoming “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived.”

A cholera outbreak took her Ayah, both parents, and several others, and everyone else fled the compound, leaving Mary alone and forgotten until some officers discovered her. She was sent to Yorkshire, England, to stay with her mother’s brother, her only relative, Archibald Craven at Misselthwaite Manor. Mr. Craven had a crooked back and had been in deep mourning for the ten years since his wife died. Mary did not meet him for a long time, as he traveled frequently, so she was taken care of primarily by a housemaid named Martha.

No one had thought to provide Mary with books or anything to do. She was strongly instructed not to poke around in the house, rumored to have 100 rooms. Martha encouraged her to go outside, pointing the way to the gardens and mentioning that there was one that had been locked up for ten years. It had been Mrs. Craven’s personal garden, but her husband had it locked up after she died.

That piqued Mary’s curiosity, and, as the title indicates, she does eventually find the garden. And what’s more, she discovers an unexpected person living in another part of the house.

My thoughts:

The story itself is a sweet, cozy, Victorian English tale. It’s not hard to see the symbolism between Mary and the friends she discovers bringing this garden back to life, weeding it, and tending it, and Mary and another orphan’s need for weeding and tending themselves. The story unfolds in a nice way and some of the characters are treasures: Ben Weatherstaff, the gruff gardener who helps Mary make friends with a robin; kindly Dickon, Martha’s brother, who has a way with animals; Mrs. Sowerby, Dickon’s warm and practical mother. I loved Mary’s transformation. The ending is perfect, just the way you’d want a book like this to end.

My mixed emotions are due to the book’s use of magic. Now, magic can mean different things in different books. I wrote some years ago about wrestling with this and concluding that fairy tale magic is not the same thing as the occult (real witches are not warty little old ladies who turn people into frogs). C. S. Lewis uses “magic” as a symbol for God’s ways. When my kids were little, one library haul yielded two books about magic carpets. In one, the “magic carpet” was a rug that the mom and child sat on to read books together – harmless and sweet. The other was a dreadful New Age tale complete with a message from a spirit guide in the back! So when magic comes up in a book, first I have to discern what the author meant by it and how the concept is portrayed.

The gust of wind that revealed the garden door was “a Magic moment.” I didn’t think much about that at first, but more and more as the story went on, Magic was given the credit for many things, until at last the children actually perform an incantation asking Magic (always capitalized) to come and do what they want. Mention is make of tales of Magic Mary heard about in India and the work of fakirs there. As the children themselves ponder what Magic is, one suggests it’s the dead mother of one of them, “lookin’ after Mester Colin, same as all mothers do when they’re took out o’ th’ world.” Other conversations attribute it to some kind of life force, the same thing that makes the flowers grow.

 I am sure there is Magic in everything, only we have not sense enough to get hold of it and make it do things for us—like electricity and horses and steam. When Mary found this garden it looked quite dead…Then something began pushing things up out of the soil, and making things out of nothing. One day things weren’t there and another they were. I had never watched things before and it made me feel very curious. Scientific people are always curious and I am going to be scientific. I keep saying to myself, ‘What is it? What is it?’ It’s something. It can’t be nothing! I don’t know its name so I call it Magic…Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something were pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of Magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden–in all the places. The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man. I am going to make the scientific experiment of trying to get some and put it in myself and make it push and draw me and make me strong. I don’t know how to do it but I think that if you keep thinking about it and calling it perhaps it will come. Perhaps that is the first baby way to get it. When I was going to try to stand that first time Mary kept saying to herself as fast as she could, ‘You can do it! You can do it!’ and I did. I had to try myself at the same time, of course, but her Magic helped me—and so did Dickon’s. Every morning and evening and as often in the daytime as I can remember I am going to say, ‘Magic is in me! Magic is making me well! I am going to be as strong as Dickon, as strong as Dickon!’ And you must all do it, too.

When Ben Weatherstaff suggests they sing the Doxology, one of them says, “’It is a very nice song…I like it. Perhaps it means just what I mean when I want to shout out that I am thankful to the Magic.’ He stopped and thought in a puzzled way. ‘Perhaps they are both the same thing. How can we know the exact names of everything?’”

Then when Dickon’s mother is asked whether she believes in Magic, she says:

I never knowed it by that name but what does th’ name matter? I warrant they call it a different name i’ France an’ a different one i’ Germany. Th’ same things as set th’ seeds swellin’ an’ th’ sun shinin’ made a well lad an’ it’s th’ Good Thing. It isn’t like us poor fools as think it matters if us is called out of our names. Th’ Big Good Thing doesn’t stop to worry, bless thee. It goes on makin’ worlds by th’ million–worlds like us. Never thee stop believin’ in th’ Big Good Thing an’ knowin’ th’ world’s full of it–an’ call it what tha’ likes. Tha’ wert singin’ to it when I come into th’ garden…Th’ Magic listened when tha’ sung th’ Doxology. It would ha’ listened to anything tha’d sung. It was th’ joy that mattered. Eh! Lad, lad, what’s names to th’ Joy Maker.

As I read and was trying to discern how to take the Magic in this book, I figured it would be best first to see if I could find out what the author meant by Magic. Wikipedia says, “In the early 1880s [Burnett] became interested in Christian Science as well as Spiritualism and Theosophy.” Sparknotes says “throughout the novel, the idea of magic is heavily inflected by the tenets of both Christian Science and New Thought.” Part of the latter is the idea of “mind over matter,” the thought that repeating something over and over, as the children do in their chanting, can make it become real. Also, near the end of the book, the author writes:

One of the new things people began to find out in the last century was that thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries—as good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison. To let a sad thought or a bad one get into your mind is as dangerous as letting a scarlet fever germ get into your body. If you let it stay there after it has got in you may never get over it as long as you live.

So long as Mistress Mary’s mind was full of disagreeable thoughts about her dislikes and sour opinions of people and her determination not to be pleased by or interested in anything, she was a yellow-faced, sickly, bored and wretched child. Circumstances, however, were very kind to her, though she was not at all aware of it. They began to push her about for her own good. When her mind gradually filled itself with robins, and moorland cottages crowded with children, with queer crabbed old gardeners and common little Yorkshire housemaids, with springtime and with secret gardens coming alive day by day, and also with a moor boy and his “creatures,” there was no room left for the disagreeable thoughts which affected her liver and her digestion and made her yellow and tired.

There’s a sense in which it’s true that both positive and negative thoughts can affect one’s outlook and even one’s health. But it’s possible to take that philosophy too far. SparkNotes goes on to say:

One of the book’s underlying themes is the way in which happiness begets happiness, and misery begets only more of itself….The source of this notion can again be found in Burnett’s fascination with the New Thought and Christian Science movements, which held that one must think only positive thoughts if one wants good things to happen. The fact that this idea is patently false miraculously did nothing to deter its adherents. Dickon’s remark that “the springtime would be better [for Colin] than doctor’s stuff” provides another instance of Christian Scientist tenets in the novel. Christian Science, as a philosophy, disapproves of medical intervention: no disease is truly corporeal (caused by the body), but is in fact the result of morbid and negative thinking. Colin must have contact with the life of the world if he is to go on living, because this contact will dispel his thoughts of death: Dickon (guided by Burnett’s Christian Scientist beliefs) says that Colin “oughtn’t to lie there thinking [of death and illness]… No lad could get well as thought them sorts of things.” The fact that Colin’s fury at Ben Weatherstaff provides him with sufficient strength to stand reinforces the notion that his previous inability to do so was entirely a product of his negative thinking. It also underlines the idea that if one only wishes to overcome one’s illness, one can. Negative thoughts are the human error to be found at the root of all disease; one must therefore force out ugly thoughts with agreeable ones, for “two things cannot be in one place.” This notion is responsible for both Colin and Mary’s wondrous metamorphoses. Once they are thinking of the garden and nature, of Dickon and of their own blossoming friendship, they can no longer concern themselves with their own contrariness or with the fear of becoming a hunchback and dying an early death. Instead, they become normal, healthy children, full of dreams of the future. This questionable (and inarguably syrupy) goal is given inane epigraphic expression in the phrase “Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”

So there is a sense in which you could think of the Magic in the book as “positive thinking” or the same force that makes the plants grow. Or, as this writer did, you could see it as pluralism, wanting to lump all of these philosophies in with Christianity as if they are the same thing, when they’re not. Knowing more of Burnett’s background and philosophy makes me wary. I don’t know if I would read this to my children, if they were still young enough to read to: we’d at least have to discuss some of these issues as we read.

There is also a bit of colonialism, I guess you’d call it, in the book, with Mary being disdainful of the Indian servants and seeing them always as only servants, and Martha’s ignorance in calling them “blacks.”

A brief biography of the author, unusual in audiobooks, mentions that “Later in life, reporters criticized her lifestyle, and turned public sentiment against her.” But it doesn’t say what exactly they criticized, so I don’t know if it was her philosophies or the fact that she was divorced or something else.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Josephine Bailey and also looked up some passages in a library copy and on Project Gutenberg.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carol’s Books You Loved, Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

20,000 LeaguesJules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea opens in 1866 when reports come in front various countries of sightings of…something in various waters, giving rise to assorted speculations. It is described as “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.” In a couple of instances it damaged nearby vessels, leaving a large hole in one ship. These kinds of accidents and the unexplained disappearance of several ships lead to the general sentiment that the creature must be found and destroyed. An expedition is arranged from New York aboard the Abraham Lincoln, and Pierre Aronnax of France, Professor of Natural History at the Museum of Paris and author of Mysteries of the Great Submarine Grounds, is currently in NY and invited to come along. He accepts, along with his servant, Conseil.

After a number of days of searching, they do encounter the creature. Ned Land, a Canadian expert harpooner, had also been invited on this expedition, and when he tries to harpoon the thing, his harpoon bounces off. The thing then sprays an enormous amount of water at the ship, causing, among other things, Professor Aronnax to fall into the depths.

His faithful servant Conseil goes in after him, and they find Ned Land on top of something solid – and metallic. The Abraham Lincoln’s rudder has been broken, so they can’t count on it to come after them. When whatever they are on starts to submerge, they pound on the outside. A hatch opens, and they are taken in.

After a couple of days locked in a dark room, visited by a couple of men who at first seem not to understand them, finally the master of the vessel, a Captain Nemo, introduces himself, tells them they are at liberty to roam the vessel, but he cannot let them go, and furthermore, there would be times when he asked them to remain in their cabins until they received notice they could leave again. He had “broken all the ties of humanity,” and was “done with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right of appreciating. I do not, therefore, obey its laws, and I desire you never to allude to them before me again!” They had no choice but to accept.

The professor finds plenty to occupy himself. Nemo takes him on a tour of his ship, the Nautilus, explains how it is fueled, how he built it, etc. A window opens up sometimes to show the surroundings, and Aronnax is excited to observe, record, even to go on some underwater excursions and explore. Conseil is happy to be wherever his master is, but Ned Land chafes at the confinement.

At times Nemo comes across as intelligent, gracious, refined, and generous. But there are other times he seems a little unhinged. When a crisis occurs, the three visitors become convinced they need to leave. But how can they?

My thoughts:

I never knew much about this book besides being familiar with the names of Nemo and the Nautilus, and the round copper helmets of their diving suits seemed to be a staple of underwater sci-fi when I was growing up. So it was interesting to finally learn the story. There were just a couple of places where it got tedious, when measurements or  long citations of plants and animals seen were listed. But there was also plenty of drama and suspense.

I bought the audiobook on sale some time ago and I had forgotten that, when reading a book that has been translated from the original, it’s good to get some information on which translation is considered the best. According to Wikipedia, the first English translation by Lewis Mercier “cut nearly a quarter of Verne’s original text and made hundreds of translation errors, sometimes dramatically changing the meaning of Verne’s original intent.” The description doesn’t say what translation this is, but the comments indicate this is not one of the better ones. So if I ever read it again, I’ll seek out another, but I did enjoy the story.

I was amazed at the misconceptions about it, though. For one, some list it as juvenile fiction, though it was not written that way. Schmoop attributes that to some of the poor translations and its having been made into a Disney movie. One source said it was about Nemo seeking revenge on a sea creature, but that’s one incident in the book and not the main plot at all.

Other interesting facts: The 20,000 leagues in the title refers to distance traveled, not depths plumbed. A little more of Nemo’s background is revealed in a later Verne book, The Mysterious Island. Verne’s publisher made several changes to the book (it wasn’t indicated whether this was with or without Verne’s approval), like changing Nemo’s nationality.

I’m thankful to the Back to the Classics challenge for spurring me to read a book I might not otherwise have picked up.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carol’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The Man Who Was Thursday

ThursdayIn The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton, Gabriel Syme and Lucian Gregory both profess to be poets, but they argue publicly about the nature of poetry and anarchy, Gregory leaning toward anarchy and Syme a “poet of law, a poet of order; nay, … a poet of respectability.” Privately Gregory confesses that he really is an anarchist, and to prove it, he wants to take Syme to a meeting of a council of anarchists. Seven men make up the council, each with a code name of a day of the week, led by Sunday. Thursday has just died and Gregory feels sure he will be elected to fill his place. He swears Syme to secrecy.

After further discussion and the codes necessary to get into the meeting, Syme asks Gregory in turn to swear not to tell a secret of his own. After Gregory agrees, Syme confesses that he is a detective with Scotland Yard.

Don’t you see we’ve checkmated each other? I can’t tell the police you are an anarchist. You can’t tell the anarchists I’m a policeman. I can only watch you, knowing what you are; you can only watch me, knowing what I am. In short, it’s a lonely, intellectual duel, my head against yours. I’m a policeman deprived of the help of the police. You, my poor fellow, are an anarchist deprived of the help of that law and organisation which is so essential to anarchy.

As Gregory makes his speech at the meeting, he fears saying anything that Syme can use against the organization, so he comes across as very tame. Syme stands up with rousing words that get the meeting behind him, and he is elected as Thursday.

Undercover, he meets with the council to determine their plans so he can thwart them. But when one of the council, an old, frail man, follows him after the meeting, Syme tries several tricks to evade him, only to find him continually following. When they finally confront each other, Syme is stunned to learn that this man is also an undercover detective. And that’s just the first step in his discovering that all is not as it appears.

My thoughts:

This book is quite suspenseful all the way through, and the latter part becomes allegorical. I had not known that going in: before choosing this book, as I tried to read enough about it to know whether I’d be interested, but not so much as to spoil it, I had missed this aspect. I’m struggling with that same line between revealing too much yet wanting to share more in reviewing it.

It gets pretty weird at the end, and I wasn’t sure what the allegory meant. As I sought some more insight this morning, I came across part of an article by Chesterton in which he lamented, “I have sometimes had occasion to murmur meekly that those who endure the heavy labour of reading a book might possibly endure that of reading the title-page of a book.”

It is odd that one example occurred in my own case… in a book called The Man Who Was Thursday. It was a very melodramatic sort of moonshine, but it had a kind of notion in it; and the point is that it described, first a band of the last champions of order fighting against what appeared to be a world of anarchy, and then the discovery that the mysterious master both of the anarchy and the order was the same sort of elemental elf who had appeared to be rather too like a pantomime ogre. This line of logic, or lunacy, led many to infer that this equivocal being was meant for a serious description of the Deity; and my work even enjoyed a temporary respect among those who like the Deity to be so described. But this error was entirely due to the fact that they had read the book but had not read the title page. In my case, it is true, it was a question of a subtitle rather than a title. The book was called The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

So realizing that it’s an allegory and being reminded that it was a nightmare helped me comes to terms with thinking I was reading a crime drama only to encounter the increasing weirdness near the end. It is a crime drama, but it’s also fantasy and philosophy.

But realizing it is an allegory also opens more questions as to what it all means. The biggest question most people have, according to my reading, is just who exactly is Sunday and what does he represent? Even the characters “see” him in different ways.

“I suppose you are right,” said the Professor reflectively. “I suppose we might find it out from him; but I confess that I should feel a bit afraid of asking Sunday who he really is.”

“Why,” asked the Secretary, “for fear of bombs?”

“No,” said the Professor, “for fear he might tell me.”

My usual go-to sources for analysis of the classics, Schmoop and SparkNotes, don’t include this book, but this article says it’s meant to be a riddle, like Job, in that everything is not explained, but we’re assured God is in control, and this article asserts that it “revolves around two of the deepest of all theological mysteries: the freedom of the will and the existence of massive, irrational evil.” The latter also suggests a plausible identity for Sunday.

This was my first time reading Chesterton beyond an occasional witty quote, and his wit shines here, as in the irony of “law and organisation which is so essential to anarchy.” A few more examples:

If you didn’t seem to be hiding, nobody hunted you out.
___
His soul swayed in a vertigo of moral indecision.
___
“It cannot be as bad as you say,” said the Professor, somewhat shaken. “There are a good number of them certainly, but they may easily be ordinary tourists.”

“Do ordinary tourists,” asked Bull, with the fieldglasses to his eyes, “wear black masks half-way down the face?”
___
“My God!” said the Colonel, “someone has shot at us.”

“It need not interrupt conversation,” said the gloomy Ratcliffe. “Pray resume your remarks, Colonel. You were talking, I think, about the plain people of a peaceable French town.”

And the more philosophical:

This is a vast philosophic movement, consisting of an outer and an inner ring. You might even call the outer ring the laity and the inner ring the priesthood. I prefer to call the outer ring the innocent section, the inner ring the supremely guilty section.
___

But right up against these dreary colours rose the black bulk of the cathedral; and upon the top of the cathedral was a random splash and great stain of snow, still clinging as to an Alpine peak. It had fallen accidentally, but just so fallen as to half drape the dome from its very topmost point, and to pick out in perfect silver the great orb and the cross. When Syme saw it he suddenly straightened himself, and made with his sword-stick an involuntary salute.

He knew that that evil figure, his shadow, was creeping quickly or slowly behind him, and he did not care.

It seemed a symbol of human faith and valour that while the skies were darkening that high place of the earth was bright. The devils might have captured heaven, but they had not yet captured the cross.
___
Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front—

The second article I referred to has an interesting section on our only seeing “the back side” of things, tying it in with Moses seeing the “back” of God in Exodus 33:17-23.

I’m sorely tempted to go back and reread it now with the understanding of its allegorical nature and some of these insights. But I think I’ll wait. I saw reference in some of my research to an annotated edition which might be helpful. Meanwhile, I am glad to have read it and thankful to the Back to the Classics challenge for steering me towards books I might not otherwise have picked up. I found this book quite funny in places, especially in some of the dialogue, suspenseful throughout, and ultimately seriously thought-provoking. It’s a sign of a good book when it has you pondering it long after closing it.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carol’s Books You Loved)

Back to the Classics 2017 Wrap-up

back-to-the-classics-2017
It’s time to wrap up the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate. Karen creates the categories each year, and participants can gain entries for a prize – a $30 gift certificate towards books! – based on the number of books read. Here’s what I read for the categories this year, linked back to my reviews of them:

1.  A 19th Century Classic. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy (1899)(Finished 9/6/17)

2.  A 20th Century Classic. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)(Finished 7/25/17) and Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington (1901)(Finished 3/8/17)(I read the text of Up From Slavery which was included in the book Uncle Tom or New Negro?: African Americans Reflect on Booker T. Washington and UP FROM SLAVERY 100 Years Later)

3.  A classic by a woman authorMiddlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)(1871)(Finished 4/18/17)

4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written or published in a language other than your native language. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand (1897)(Finished 7/15/17)

5.  A classic published before 1800. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605)(Finished 7/8/17)

6.  A romance classic. Lavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed (1902)(Finished 5/3/17)

7.  A Gothic or horror classic. The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)(Finished 7/14/17)

8.  A classic with a number in the title. Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup (1853)(Finished 2/8/17)

9.  A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title.  Old Yeller by Fred Gipson (1956) (Finished 5/2/17)

10. A classic set in a place you’d like to visitThe Story Girl by Lucy Maude Montgomery, set in Prince Edward Isle, Canada. (1911)(Finished 2/1/17)

11. An award-winning classic.The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George  Speare (Newberry Medal, 1962) (Finished around 12/8/17)

12. A Russian Classic. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (1886)(Finished 8/30/17)

Karen also asks that we let her know how many entries we qualify for so she doesn’t have to figure them for each person. Since I completed all twelve (even 13! 🙂 ), I’m eligible for three entries. She also asks for an email address: barbarah06 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Karen has the categories and information up for the Back to the Classics 2018 Challenge here if you want to look it over and think about participating next year. I’ve been trying to incorporate classics into my reading the last few years, and this has been a fun way to do it.

I’ll also put in a plug here for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge 2018, which will be hosted here in February and would dovetail nicely with the Classics Challenge. The Little House books would fit in the 19th century, woman author, and children’s categories, and some would fit in the travel or journey category.

Next week after Christmas I’ll post the list of books I’ve read this year and a list of my favorites of the year.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)