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

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)

Book Review: The Bronze Bow

Bronze bowThe Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare takes place during the time Christ lived in Israel. Daniel bar Jamin is a young Jewish man fueled by one passion: vengeance against the hated Romans. They had crucified his father and uncle when Daniel was eight, his mother died of grief, and his sister, who saw the bodies on the crosses when she was three, was so traumatized that she became excessively fearful and has never left the house since. Daniel’s grandmother took the children in, but she was so poor that she had to sell Daniel to a blacksmith as an apprentice. Daniel’s master was so cruel that Daniel escaped to the hills, where he was taken in by a band of outlaw freedom fighters.

One day Daniel, now a young man, spies another young man and his sister exploring the hills and realizes he uses to know the other young man, Joel. Though it’s not wise or safe, Daniel feels compelled to speak to them. They get reacquainted and wonder whether the freedom fighter’s leader, Rosh, could possibly be the deliverer, the Messiah they wait for. Joel wants to join Rosh’s band, so Rosh tells him to go back to town and wait, and he’ll send him word when it’s time.

Eventually Daniel’s friend, Simon the Zealot, sends word to Daniel that his grandmother is dying. As his sister, Leah’s, only living relative, Daniel feels compelled to go back and care for her, though Rosh calls him “soft.” Simon offers Daniel his blacksmith’s shop since Simon is following Jesus and not using it. Daniel finds that most people in the village, though they don’t like Roman rule, aren’t willing to fight against it. Though homesick for the free air and space of the hills, Daniel recruits Joel and other boys to a band to train to help Rosh when the time comes.

As Daniel hears of Jesus from Simon and Joel, goes to listen to his teaching, and witnesses healings, he can’t help but wonder about him and ponder his words. He wishes Jesus would team up with Rosh. But eventually he realizes Jesus’s deliverance is not so much from Roman oppression, his message is not about revenge, hatred, and war: in fact, he tells people to love their enemies. That Daniel cannot acquiesce to, so he goes his own way, which eventually leads to disaster and despair. Will Daniels’s hate destroy everything dear to him, or will his hitting rock bottom finally allow him to look up?

“Daniel,” he said. “I would have you follow me.”

“Master!….I will fight for you to the end!.”

“My loyal friend,” he said, “I would ask something much harder than that. Would you love for me to the end?”

It is the hate that is the enemy. Not men. Hate does not die with killing. It only springs up a hundredfold. The only thing stronger than hate is love.

My thoughts:

I came across this book while searching for an award-winning classic for the Back to the Classics challenge, and this won the Newberry medal. I was resistant to reading it, both because I figured it would be predictable and I am wary of fictionalized Bible-related stories. I chose another classic but had to lay it aside due to bad language and couldn’t find anything else, so I came back to The Bronze Bow. And I was pleasantly surprised! Though one event happened like I thought it might, the rest of the story didn’t pan out like I thought it would at all, and I was drawn in to Daniel’s story and angst. I listened to the audiobook nicely narrated by Peter Bradbury, but also checked out the hard copy from the library to go over certain passages more in depth.

I wouldn’t take my theology from this book. There are conversations and incidents involving Jesus that may not represent Him or His message entirely accurately, and the redemption described seems more about overcoming hate than personal salvation from sin (though of course overcoming hate with love is certainly a part of salvation).  But it does give an excellent feel to the times, especially to what being under a Jew under Roman occupation was like, and shows the cultural customs naturally without being didactic. The characters were well-drawn and the story drew me right in.

One thing that stood out was the sense of anticipation of waiting for the Messiah, the Deliverer, even though some people missed the point of what He was coming to deliver them from. It was interesting reading this during the Christmas season, when we commemorate the anticipation of His coming the first time, and renews in me that sense of anticipation of His coming again.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday and Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Tolstoy’s Resurrection

The Story.

In Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy, Prince Dmitri Nekhludov starts off as a sweet, thoughtful young man. On a visit to his two aunts, he meets a girl named Katerina Maslova (also called Katusha), whom they had taken in from a neglectful mother. She’s often referred to as their half-ward, half servant. They fall in love with all the sweetness of a teenage romance.

Nekhludov goes on to join the military, which changes him for the worse. He becomes more self-indulgent and picks up bad habits, which his companions and even his mother see as normal and encourage. The next time he goes to visit his aunts, his sweet, innocent love for Katusha has become lust, and he takes advantage of her. He gives her money and leaves for his military career with not much thought.

Years later, Nekhludov is engaged to one woman while secretly having an affair with a married woman. He’s called for jury duty and is stunned to find that the defendant is Katusha, now a prostitute who is accused of poisoning a client. His conscience is awakened to the truth he began her downfall, and he vows to help her all he can. The more he becomes acquainted with the prison system, the more injustices he learns of, the more dissatisfied he becomes with his own life. Yet finding the answers, not only for his own heart but for the wrongs of society, is not an easy feat.

Tolstoy’s beliefs

In talking with one of my sons once about a particular social/political issue, I commented that everyone agreed it was a serious problem, but no one agreed about the best solution for it. Tolstoy does a masterful job of calling attention to some of society’s worst problems, but his philosophies, to me, were a little off, especially in light of having heard he was a Christian. Here I am going beyond reviewing to processing some of these things for my own thinking.

This was Tolstoy’s last book. He had renounced novel-writing but wrote this last story to raise money for a religious sect wanting to immigrate to Canada. Some years earlier he had a crisis of faith, wrestling with the meaning of life. Many sources call this his conversion, but I am uncertain exactly what he converted to. Some of his beliefs seem to be moral and Biblically based. But in a scene where Nekhludov is listening to a preacher talk about salvation through Christ’s blood, Nekhludov leaves, “disgusted.” Tolstoy seems to take the passage “The kingdom of God is within you” to mean that, rather than a person needing to be born again, rather than being dead in trespasses and sins, he just needs the spiritual part of himself to be awakened or fanned into flame to have victory over the “animal” part of him (he has written other books about his beliefs in more detail, which I have not read: I’m just going by what he has Nekhludov undergoing here).

There were many Christian truths and principles in the book that I agreed with, but I found other beliefs in the book a little wonky:

  • He felt that public praying was a sin, but the passage about praying in secret in one’s closet was not an indication that one should never pray in front of other people or lead a group in prayer. Jesus did, Stephen did, others did in the gospels and Acts. The context of praying in secret has to do with praying for “show” so others will see and hear count us as spiritual, and that’s what was declared wrong.
  • He posits that no one has a right to judge (in a legal sense) or punish anyone. But Romans 13 tells us:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

  • He felt it was wrong to be a landowner because no one can own the earth. True, “The earth is the Lord‘s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). But owning land and leaving it as an inheritance for one’s children is not condemned in the Bible. In fact, one of God’s big promises to Israel was a tract of land, and they went through a detailed process of dividing it up between the tribes. The Biblical concept is that of stewardship, recognizing that God is the actual owner of all we have and we’re accountable to Him with whatever we “own” in a legal sense.
  • He indicated the kingdom of God can be established on Earth by obeying the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Well, life would certainly be better and a lot more like heaven if people did, but we won’t establish the Kingdom of heaven here that way: Jesus will establish His own kingdom when He returns.
  • When Nekhludov classifies in his own mind five different types of prisoners, he seems to believe they are all there because of bad or misunderstood circumstances. While that’s certainly true in some cases, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that any of them are there because they had a sin nature and chose wrong just because they wanted to or took pleasure in it.
  • He doesn’t go so far as to say it is a sin to be rich, but he does blame class differences for many of society’s ills. It’s true that class differences do cause many problems. But the answer isn’t to even everyone out into the same circumstances. Only one person in the Bible was told to sell all he had and follow Christ. Timothy as a pastor is instructed to teach the rich, in 1 Timothy 6:

17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

But the rich are not the only ones called to be generous. The Macedonians gave out of their poverty. The widow gave two mites. We all have something to give; we’re all better off than someone.

Plus even in this story, Nekhludov is able to go places, do things for people, see prisoners, etc., sometimes because of his stature as an aristocrat, sometimes because of bribes. The rich have not only wealth, but position and influence that they can use to help people.

My thoughts.

Tolstoy’s best writing in this book comes when he’s telling how Nekhludov and Maslova each arrived at their current position, and in his “showing, not telling” how so many authorities, especially the day of Maslova’s trial, were thinking about everything but being agents of justice and the lives they were affecting (the judge hoping things went fast so he could keep a tryst with a woman, the lawyer polishing what he planned to say so as to look and sound at his best advantage, etc.) If The Death of Ivan Ilyich was the anatomy of dying, this book is the anatomy of either a conversion (of sorts – I think that’s what Tolstoy meant it to be, as well as a diatribe of what was wrong in society), or at least an awakened conscience. And just as with Ivan Ilyich, there are perfect little true-to-life nuances, such as Nekhludov at first “with a sense of self-admiration…admiring his own remorse” until he eventually was “filled with horror” over what he had done. There are piquant bits of irony in places, such as one prison office being decorated with “a large image of Christ, as is usual in places where they torture people.”

In this day when people abhor “preachiness,” I would have thought that few people would like this book, but the vast majority of articles and reviews I have scanned regard it favorably. Maybe that’s because many of the issues Tolstoy brings up we still deal with today.

I thought the story itself started out wonderfully but got bogged down in the latter chapters. Part of that was probably on purpose, as Katusha’s case goes through appeals, roadblocks, and setbacks. I’m sure people in such a situation feel bogged down during the process. But part of it was Nekhludov’s conversations with people, especially the political prisoners, and internal musings. I’m all for internal musings and a certain amount of philosophizing in a book, and it’s natural that in a story of this type, the main character is going to be wrestling within himself a lot. And I think the philosophizing was Tolstoy’s main point of the book rather than the story itself, but the story didn’t flow as well in the second half. I felt the ending of the story itself wasn’t adequately resolved, and felt that Nekhludov’s conclusions were right in some places but off in others.

But I do very much agree with Tolstoy that we’re responsible for how we treat people and that much in society is still flawed. I didn’t always agree with the actions and philosophies he espoused, but this book did get me thinking about some of these issues more than I had before, and that’s a good thing.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Neville Jason and read the introductory material and several passages in this Kindle version.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)


Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

I’ve been wanting to read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy ever since I saw it referred to in Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.

It begins with Ivan’s colleagues receiving news of his death. While some of express regret, most of them are glad that they weren’t the ones who died and concentrate on the opening of position to replace him and the “very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.” Even at the funeral, they are more concerned with the propriety of what to say and do and escaping to a bridge game afterward than with expressing genuine sorrow to the widow. Even Ivan’s wife, Praskovya Fedorovna, seems primarily concerned with how Ivan’s last sufferings affected her and how she can get more money from the government. Only Ivan’s son seems genuinely sorrowful.

The next chapters detail Ivan’s life. He was the middle son, “neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them—an intelligent polished, lively and agreeable man.” He attended law school and rose up the ranks of a law career. “Neither as a boy nor as a man was he a toady, but from early youth was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them.”

At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

He had not planned to marry, but when he met Praskovya Fedorovna, she was reasonably attractive and had a little property, and a good marriage was part of a respectable lifestyle, so he married. He strove for a life that was “easy, agreeable, gay and always decorous.” That word decorous comes up often.

Things went well until his wife became pregnant and, evidently hormonal, she began demanding more of his time and became very jealous, introducing “something new, unpleasant, depressing, and unseemly, and from which there was no way of escape.” He handled it by ignoring it, spending more time with his friends or at work.

At one point, during a particularly happy phase of life, he had a fall and injured his side. It seemed minor at the time, but it did not heal. The pain increased, became more constant, he developed a bad taste in his mouth. He sought various doctors, but they all had different diagnoses.

As he gradually grew worse, he began to think he might die. At first he refused to believe it. But as his condition worsened, he cried out to God wondering why this was happening to him. Eventually he began to wonder if this was all because he had not lived a good life…but of course he had lived a good life, he thought, so that must not be it.

As he realizes that he is in fact dying, he simmers with rage over the reactions of everyone else.

[The doctor] comes in fresh, hearty, plump, and cheerful, with that look on his face that seems to say: “There now, you’re in a panic about something, but we’ll arrange it all for you directly!” The doctor knows this expression is out of place here, but he has put it on once for all and can’t take it off.

Just as the doctor had adopted a certain relation to his patient which he could not abandon, so had [his wife] formed one towards him—that he was not doing something he ought to do and was himself to blame, and that she reproached him lovingly for this—and she could not now change that attitude.

His daughter was “impatient with illness, suffering, and death, because they interfered with her happiness.”

Ivan just wants someone to be honest, to be real, to admit that he’s dying, and to empathize with him.

The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long.

The only person who seems comfortable with Ivan and his condition is the butler’s assistant, Gerasim, “clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright.” It was Gerasim’s job to take care of Ivan’s “excretions,” which terribly embarrassed Ivan, but Gerasim did his work in such a cheerful way that it comforted Ivan, and, when Ivan apologized, Gerasim continually said, “What’s a little trouble?”

Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, but simply felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master. Once when Ivan Ilych was sending him away he even said straight out:”We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?” —expressing the fact that he did not think his work burdensome, because he was doing it for a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came.

Ivan began relying on Gerasim more and more. His pain was most alleviated when Gerasim held Ivan’s legs on Gerasim’s shoulders, and he uncomplainingly supported him like that through the night.

As Ivan’s continues to deteriorate, he begins to question if perhaps he had not really lived a good life at all. The things which used to bring him happiness now seemed shallow and unimportant.

This might sound like a terribly depressing story. It’s sad, but it’s enlightening and moving at the same time. One of Atul Gawande’s points in his book was that we’ve become far removed from death. In former times, life spans were shorter, an agricultural society dealt with death of animals frequently, plagues happened more frequently, and people died at home rather than in hospitals. While we have much to be grateful for in the strides in health care that have been made throughout history, Gawande is right in that we have become so distanced from death that we don’t know how to handle it, are often surprised to face it, avoid dealing with it, and don’t know what to say to someone who is dying. Tolstoy’s book illustrates this abundantly.

I think Ivan’s progression of spirit was well told. I’m thankful to Sparknotes for pointing out that the time progression of the book slowed down from covering several years of Ivan’s life, then a few weeks, then days, then his final moments, and his world shrunk progressively as well from a “man about town” to the confines of his room and then his sofa.

I think in some cases God allows a slow progression of death like this because that’s the only time some people would stop long enough to consider their ways and think about death and whether they’re ready for it. Tolstoy wrote this after a crisis of faith in which he wrestled with what the meaning of life was, and that is reflected in Ivan’s wrestlings as well. From what I understand, Tolstoy ended up with kind of an amalgam of beliefs, but Christian principles undergird the narrative here.

In some ways Ivan reaped what he sowed. He didn’t take time to understand his wife’s concerns in their early marriage, and she responded in the same way when he was dying – not on purpose or for vengeance, but she was just as out of touch as he had been earlier. There are almost parallel sections in how he treated people ion his career and how doctors treated him. But he does come to realize and acknowledge this over time.

Gersasim is a breath of fresh air in the novel. His empathy, balance between cheerfulness and sympathy, willingness to do whatever needed to be done to help, all make the reader hope for a friend like him when our own time comes.

I appreciated Schmoop‘s conclusions in their “Why should I care?” section. They can be pretty irreverent at times, but I thought they were spot on here:

The Death of Ivan Ilych brings to our attention the unpleasant fact that we all have to die, and that we might have to suffer a whole lot first. Our medicines might be better than those of Ivan’s doctors, but we haven’t gotten any closer to escaping mortality, and many people still die only after a long and painful period of disease. Perhaps Ivan Ilych, which is famous for its psychological depth, will help you understand what many people go through when they’re dying.

Perhaps Ivan Ilych will also get you thinking about what mortality means for you. Like Ivan, you might start wondering how you should live your life, and how you can find meaning in it.

I listened to the audiobook marvelously read by Oliver Ford Davies. Not only was the narration done well, but particularly Ivan’s voice and the changes over the course of his illness were masterfully portrayed. The text of the novella is here.

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


Book Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39 stepsThe Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan opens with thirty-seven-year-old Scotchman Richard Hannay bored with life in London in May of 1914. He had been a mining engineer in Rhodesia and came to England, but has no friends and nothing to do. He’s on the verge of finding something else to do with his life when he’s accosted at his door by an American from a neighboring flat pleading for his help.

He lets the man in, a Franklin Scudder, who tells him what seems a fantastic tale at first. Scudder has just faked his own death. He’s sort of a free-lance spy who had come upon a secret on international intrigue, a plot to kill the Greek premier, Karolides, when he comes to England, which will set off a series of negative political repercussions. When Hannay suggests Karolides can be warned not to come, Scudder objects that Karolides is needed for the meetings he is to attend. What Scudder wants to do is hide out in Hannay’s flat until June 15, when he can get to the appropriate authorities.

At first Hannay thinks Scudder must be insane, but the more he talks, especially when he brings up Karolides, whom Hannay had just been reading about, Hannay believes him and agrees to let him stay. Meanwhile Scudder changes disguises to look like a British officer.

Hannay enjoys having the company for several days and notices Scudder scribbling in a notebook from time to time. When Hannay has to go out for a meeting, he comes home to find Scudder stabbed to death in his flat.

And that’s just the first chapter.

Shocked and disconcerted, Hannay investigates his flat for clues and considers whether to call the police. No one knows him in London, and he knew little enough about Scudder to make the whole situation seem fishy, concluding that he would probably be suspected for the murder. It was three weeks until the June 15th meeting, and Hannay decides to take Scudder’s notebook and take on his task.When he leaves his flat he notices a face in a neighboring window watching him.

On the run both from the police and the men who were after Scudder, Hannay’s journey takes him into all sorts of places and situations.

I liked that Hannay is presented as a fairly ordinary man. He has a few talents that come in handy, but in general he’s just a “regular chap” trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. He says he is “no Sherlock Holmes,” but he uses his wits and powers of deduction a fair bit.

I am an ordinary sort of fellow, not braver than other people, but I hate to see a good man downed, and that long knife would not be the end of Scudder if I could play the game in his place.

All this was very loose guessing, and I don’t pretend it was ingenious or scientific. I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. I don’t know if I can explain myself, but I used to use my brains as far as they went, and after they came to a blank wall I guessed, and I usually found my guesses pretty right.

The writing grabbed me early on and held me throughout the book. Hannay got into various scrapes, building up the suspense of how he would get himself out of them, whether he’d make it to the authorities he needed to in time, whether he’d get in to see them, whether they’d believe him. The suspense lasted right up to the last page. After I finished the book I went back over some of the political stuff to get a better grasp of it,  but even without that I had picked up enough to follow and enjoy the story. I also loved the Britishness of it and Hannay’s way of expressing himself.

Buchan wrote this while he was recovering from an ulcer. One day while visiting him where he was convalescing, his daughter counted 39 steps in the building, and Buchan decided to use that as a vital clue in the book. He wanted to write a “‘shocker’…where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” It’s one of the first “man on the run” type stories. He went on to write four more Hannay novels. This book was made into several films, one of them by Alfred Hitchcock, which I planned to look up until I read that all the films varied greatly from the book.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Robert Powell and read a number of sections in the Kindle version. I’d gotten the Kindle version on sale some time ago, but Hope’s review encouraged me to move this up on my TBR list. I quite enjoyed the story!

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



Review: Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac is a play written by Edmond Rostand in 1897 but set in 1640 Paris. It became an instant success and has remained so ever since. In one sense it’s a throwback to “France’s golden age—a time when men were musketeers, women were beautiful heiresses, and the wit flashed as brightly as the swordplay” (according to SparkNotes), represented in stories like The Three Musketeers, which was published 50 years before Cyrano. Cyrano even references The Three Musketeers in places. In another sense it’s a parody of such stories. Part comedy, part tragedy, the main focus is its title character, Cyrano.

Cyrano excels in almost every area. He’s witty, an excellent poet, a superb swordsman, and he commands the respect of almost all who know him. The one area where he lacks confidence is romantic relationships, and that’s due primarily to his extremely oversized nose. He thinks no woman would find him attractive or even give him a chance, especially his cousin, Roxanne, whom he confesses to one friend that he loves. When Roxanne sends him a message that she wants to meet with him privately, he begins to hope that perhaps she could love him, and he pours out his heart in a letter to her. But when they meet, he learns that she loves a handsome young man in his regiment, Christian, and she asks him to watch over Christian.

He agrees, and when he tells Christian that he is Roxanne’s cousin, Christian confesses that he loves her but he can’t approach her. Roxanne loves “flowing words,
Bright wit,” and Christian is tongue-tied and inarticulate. The men each lament their deficiencies:

Oh, to express one’s thoughts with facile grace!. . .

. . .To be a musketeer, with handsome face!

Then Cyrano hits on an idea: they can combine their talents. He can teach Christian what to say, and that will give him an outlet for his own heart. He gives Christian the letter he had just written to Roxanne but left unsigned and tells Christian to send it to her in his name.

What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

The rest of the play shows how they each progress and carries them through various scenes, but I don’t want to give away any more details.

Some of the comedic sections are priceless, such as a lengthy exchange with Cyrano and another man who is trying not to look at or comment on Cyrano’s nose and then is questioned by Cyrano (“Is there anything extraordinary about it?…Is it soft and swinging like an elephant’s trunk? Is there a wart on the end of it? Or a fly?…Is it a phenomenon?”) When Christian, hoping for a kiss, wants to speak to Roxanne himself and can’t seem to come up with anything except, “I love thee,” Roxanne responds, “‘Tis the theme: embroider it,” and later “Gather up your scattered eloquence.” Here are just a few more samples:

Tradesman: You are not Samson!
Cyrano: I will be, my dear sir, if you’ll lend me your jaw.

Cyrano: Whom I love? Come now, reflect. The dream of being loved, even by a homely girl, is one forbidden me. Forbidden by this nose of mine that precedes me everywhere by fifteen minutes.

I enjoyed the comedy and the swashbuckling, but most of all I enjoyed the more earnest parts, such as when Cyrano is trying to coach Christian when they’re half hidden in the darkness under Roxanne’s balcony (reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet‘s balcony scene). Getting frustrated with the process, Cyrano pushes Christian out of the way and then speaks from his heart. The last few scenes, when Cyrano goes to visit Roxanne some fourteen years after the action in the previous scenes, is masterfully written. The time of day, the season, the double meaning to Cyrano’s words, and the development of the conversation all come together to form once of my favorite sections of literature with one of my favorite lines (which I can’t tell, or else you’d know the ending!)

I looked at SparkNotes and Shmoop‘s analysis a bit, and disagreed with Shmoop’s especially. They seemed to think the main theme was Cyrano’s lack of self-esteem, that if he had not been hung up on his one defect, he could have had a life of love (see the Shmoop heading “Why Should I Care?” for more on this).

But I think the theme has to do with the self-sacrificial nature of real love. A couple of times Cyrano had an opening to confess his love, but he abstained, for the happiness and then the honor of another. All the characters grow in their understanding of love, finding that it goes beyond handsome faces, stolen kisses, and “embroidered” words, but Cyrano embodies it the most.

I did not investigate translations like I did before reading Don Quixote, and I wish I had. I looked around a bit afterward and learned that one by Brian Hooker is considered the best. I was primarily looking for an audiobook version that read the actual play rather than an audio performance of it, and found that here, translated by Howard Thayer Kingsbury, and enjoyed it very much. It says it is narrated by Flo Gibson, but it is actually narrated by Grover Gardner, who did an excellent job. I also got this Kindle version translated by Charles Renauld and looked around it and the Gutenberg version, and didn’t like either of them as much, at least, as far as I compared them, which wasn’t much. For instance, where in the audiobook Roxanne tells Christian to “embroider” his words, the Gutenberg version says to “vary” them, and the Renauld version just says, “Amplify!” I don’t know which is closest to the original, but “embroider” sounds a lot better to me. But I do appreciate Renauld’s introduction and preface detailing some of the difficulties of translation, not only from a different language, but from the poetry in which the play was originally written, and his reasons for making the choices he did, ending with the admonition that those who would be critical should “Try the task!” While looking up information on translations, I came across this fascinating discussion with some examples of how different translations handle one of Cyrano’s speeches and this great article.

One place where translations differ greatly is near the end when Cyrano speaks of the one thing he can take with him when he dies that no one can take away from him. Some translations say “plume,” others say “panache.” The audiobook said “plume,” and I admit it didn’t make sense to me at first. Renauld says in his introduction:

Now, what is this panache upon which “Cyrano” sets such a high value? To understand it is to appreciate, to miss it is to miss the meaning of the play. An explanation of it is, therefore, not out of place in this introduction.

The panache is an external quality which adds colour and brilliancy to internal things already worth having for their own intrinsic value. Its main justification is personal bravery…The panache is literally a high plume, or bunch of plumes, that waves high above a commander’s head-gear…There is magnetism in the panache…Henry the Fourth said to his soldiers; “you will find it always on the path of honour and duty.” The panache, too, is essentially joyful. “Cyrano” is joyful, in spite of a life that would breed discouragement and bitterness in almost any heart but his.

That sheds light on this earlier speech of Cyrano’s when someone criticizes his clothes:

It is my character that I adorn.
I do not deck me like a popinjay ;
But though less foppish, I am better dressed :
I would not sally forth, through carelessness.
With an insult ill wiped out, or with my conscience
Sallow with sleep still lingering in its eyes.
Honor in rags, or scruples dressed in mourning.
But I go out with all upon me shining,
With liberty and freedom for my plume,
Not a mere upright figure ; — ’tis my soul
That I thus hold erect as if with stays,
And decked with daring deeds instead of ribbons.
Twirling my wit as it were my moustache,
The while I pass among the crowd, I make
Bold truths ring out like spurs.

And it also sheds light on one place where they are battling Spain, and a cadet comes in with “a collection of shabby hats spitted on his sword, their plumes bedraggled and holes through the brims,” “spoils of war” he gathered from the enemy’s camp.

So it does look like the theme has to do with panache, brave, magnetic, joyful flair. But I still think it has to do with love as well.

There are multiple film versions of the play – I’d love to check out Jose Ferrer’s, one of the most famous ones, if I can find it. I did find this scene of it:

I had seen this play at least once, maybe a couple of times, years ago, and remembered the basic story line, but I am so glad I read (or listened to) it now. There was so much to enjoy about it, and I feel sure I’ll read it again in the future.

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


Book Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Jeckyll and HydeIn a way it’s too bad that most modern readers know the premise behind The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. We miss a lot of the build-up of the mystery the other characters are trying to solve. But it’s still an enjoyable story.

It begins in Victorian-era London when a lawyer, Mr. Utterson, is taking a walk with his cousin when they pass a door that stirs a memory for the cousin, Mr. Enfield. Once Enfield was walking in the same area when he witnessed a young girl being trampled by a man. He and the crowd around them insisted that the man pay the girl immediately for damages, and the man went into the particular door they’re now passing to obtain a check written on the account of a reputable man in the city. Enfield describes the man negatively, saying he seemed deformed, though Enfield couldn’t put his finger on exactly what was wrong with him. When he mentions that the man’s name is Hyde, Utterson stops him, for he knows who Hyde is and wishes to avoid gossip.

But the incident increases Utterson’s concern. His friend and client, Dr. Jekyll, has just changed his will to leave everything to Hyde, and Utterson feels sure that the account Hyde drew on was Jekyll’s. He fears Hyde may be blackmailing Jekyll, but Jekyll says Hyde is no one to worry about.

Some time later, a maid witnesses Hyde killing a man in the street who turns out to be a member of Parliament and another of Utterson’s clients. Hyde seems to disappear after that, and Jekyll says he has cut off ties with him. But then all of a sudden Jekyll stops going out and receiving visitors. One day when Utterson happens to see him through a window and stops to talk for a while, Jekyll seems glad to see him at first, and then suddenly with a look of horror slams down the window. Then one night Jekyll’s butler, Poole, come to Mr. Utterson to say that something is terribly wrong: his master has been locked in his laboratory for days and now doesn’t sound like himself. Utterson comes with Poole, and they decide to break down the door. What they find I will leave you to discover, but a couple of letters left for Utterson explain what has been going on.

As most readers know (and if you don’t know and don’t want to, skip this paragraph!), Hyde and Jekyll are the same man. What’s perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book to me is Jeckyll’s reasons for his experimentations. He had struggled with the conflicting parts of himself wanting to do good or evil, and decided to see if he could separate them – not in order to filter out the bad and therefore conquer it, but so the bad side could do what it wanted without restraint and without consequences such as marring the good name of Jekyll.

I had learned to dwell with pleasure as a beloved daydream on the
thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities life would be relieved of all that was unbearable: the unjust might go his way delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path doing the good things in which he found his pleasure and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

When Jekyll becomes alarmed at how far Hyde has gone and resolves not to let him out any more, Stevenson masterfully describes incomplete repentance which isn’t true repentance.

It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.

Yes, I preferred the elderly and discontented doctor, surrounded by friends and cherishing honest hopes; and bade a resolute farewell to the liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping impulses and secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde. I made this choice perhaps with some unconscious reservation, for I neither gave up the house in Soho, nor destroyed the clothes of Edward Hyde, which still lay ready in my cabinet.

As the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for licence.

I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.

Elisabeth Elliot once wrote that she was dealing with guilt over something she had done and was astounded by it, thinking, “That’s just not me.” She was brought up short by the realization that it was indeed her fault, that she couldn’t blame it on provocation or circumstances. Even if she had been provoked, she could have looked to God for help to respond rightly. That jarred me, because I was too prone to blame my bad reactions on the circumstances that caused them rather than my innate sinfulness. It’s telling that Jekyll blamed Hyde’s wrongdoings on Hyde alone as if he were a separate being rather than actually himself. The first step in gaining any kind of victory over the Hyde in each of us is to recognize and own the fact that he is us.

I don’t know much about Stevenson himself. A quick perusal of the Wikipedia article about him says he grew up in a religious home but declared himself an atheist in his twenties. He recognized just how horrible what the Bible calls our “old man” or “flesh” could become, and seemed to realize that it couldn’t be reigned in just with conscience. I don’t know if he ever knew that we could be completely liberated from its penalty and power only through Christ: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-8:1a).

This is a short book: paperback copies are less than 100 pages, and the audiobook I listened to was only 2 hours and 19 minutes. So for those who might like to read classics but are intimidated by their length, this one might be good to try. Even though I knew the basic story, I gained much by reading the book. I started out listening to an audiobook, but though the narrator was fine in the narrative, he was terrible with the character’s voices, so I switched to the 99 cent Kindle version. I chose it for the horror/Gothic category of the Back to the Classics challenge. I’m not into horror at all and thought I might skip this category until I read Rebekah’s review of this book. I am thankful for both of those influences leading me to read a book that I would have been unlikely to pick up otherwise.

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