Book Review: Twelve Years a Slave

12-years-a-slaveSolomon Northup was a free black man living in New York in the early 1800s. His father had been a slave and was freed, and his mother was free. His father became a farmer, eventually owned his own land, had the right to vote, and educated his children. Solomon married Anne Hampton and they had three children. Anne was a noted cook and worked for different hotels and taverns. Solomon was a professional violinist, but the inconsistency of his opportunities to play led him to supplement his income by a variety of other jobs, often carpentry.

When he was 32, he met a couple of men who said they were circus performers on their way back to Washington, D.C. They planned to give several performances along the way and asked him to come with them and play his violin. Anne was away and he thought he would be home soon, so he didn’t notify her. Slavery was legal in Washington, so they advised him along the way to obtain papers declaring his freedom.

One afternoon after the group stopped in a saloon he became terribly ill. He went back to his hotel room in not a very good state (probably drugged). “The memory of that night of horrible suffering will follow me to the grave,” he later wrote. During the night some men came to his room and said they were taking him to a doctor. On the way he became “insensible” for an unknown period of time, and “when consciousness returned, I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains.” His papers and everything else were gone.

He later discovered he was in a slave pen within sight of the US Capitol building. When someone finally came into his cell and he protested that he was a free man, he was severely beaten.

He was eventually taken to Louisiana, his name was changed to Platt and those holding him said he was from GA. He was bought for $1,000 by a farmer named Ford who later became a preacher.

In many northern minds, perhaps, the idea of a man holding his brother man in servitude, and the traffic in human flesh, may seem altogether incompatible with their conceptions of a moral or religious life. From descriptions of such men as Burch and Freeman [those who sold him], and others hereinafter mentioned, they are led to despise and execrate the whole class of slaveholders, indiscriminately. But I was sometime his slave, and had an opportunity of learning well his character and disposition, and it is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. Nevertheless, he was a model master, walking uprightly, according to the light of his understanding, and fortunate was the slave who came to his possession.

This, especially the parts I highlighted, helped me in understanding why a professing Christian could ever hold a slave. Someone once said that though the Bible doesn’t expressly forbid slavery, applying Jesus’ admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” would nip it in the bud. I don’t know why it took Christians so long to realize this.

Ford and Northup had a good working relationship. The latter was able to use his carpentry skills in a variety of ways and knew he was appreciated. Ford took time to instruct his slaves spiritually. But when he came into debt, he had to sell several of them, Northup included.

After his severe beating for maintaining his freedom, Northup kept quiet about it, and with his name change, it was impossible for anyone he knew in his previous life to find him. The next two masters he was sold to were cruel and unreasonable. He was beaten, unjustly charged, worked to exhaustion for the majority of his time in slavery.One of his masters taught slaves Scripture as well, but took passages about slaves out of context and misused them to justify his beating of them.

Finally when his master had a visitor, Bass, who argued with him about the justice of slavery, Northup took a huge chance to talk with him privately to ask if he would send a letter in his behalf to friends in NY who might be able to advocate for his freedom. It’s amazing that the letter got where it needed to go and then that those who worked to liberate Northup found him, as Bass had not signed his name (fearing repercussions) and Norhthup’s name had been changed. A whole series of seeming coincidences (or, as I prefer, signs of God’s providence) worked together, and the scene where Northup realizes who the men are who have come for him is priceless.

Along with telling his own tale, Northup tells of several others he encountered along the way. Slave women had  a particularly hard time of it: when the master made sexual advances toward them, they could not refuse, at least not without beatings; when the master’s wife knew of it, then she was jealous and dished out her own punishment. One such woman with two children was sold with him: her master’s wife sold her and her children when the master was out of town, and the scene of her separation from her children was heart-wrenching (one was sold to someone else; the seller just out of spite  would not let Ford buy her child). She was ever after a broken woman.

He also writes of moral dilemmas he found himself in. At one time he was “promoted” to a driver, and part of his responsibility was to whip other slaves who were not performing up to par. “If Epps was present, I dared not show any lenity, not having the Christian fortitude of a certain well-known Uncle Tom sufficiently to brave his wrath by refusing to perform the office.” Instead, he got proficient with the whip to make it look like he was beating them, yet not letting it actually touch them, and they writhed as if beaten. Another time he secretly obtained paper, made ink, and wrote a letter to friends up North, and took a chance by asking someone to send it. But that someone told his master, though he didn’t give a name. His master confronted him, and he knew it would mean a beating, if not death, to have been found out. He asked how he could write a letter with no supplies and suggested that the man, who had been working temporarily for Epps, was trying to scare him with the thought of runaway slaves so Epps would hire him as an overseer. Epps believed him.

One of the conversations Bass had with Northup’s last owner was the following:

These n…. are human beings. If they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers, and can go where you please, and gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? If they are not brought down to a level with the brute creation, you slaveholders will never be blamed for it. If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.

Later he asks, “What difference is there in the color of a soul?” Indeed.

After he was united with his family, Northup wrote of his experience in 12 Years a Slave  The book ends fairly soon after his reunion with his family, and afterward, according to Wikipedia he worked “again as a carpenter. He became active in the abolitionist movement and lectured on slavery.” He was uniquely gifted and qualified to write this book and shed light on a horrible institution and give voice to others who could not share theirs.

In the “enhanced edition” of the book, which is supplemented by the research of Dr. Sue Eakin, she writes, “In 1853, Solomon’s autobiography brought immediate reaction from New York newspapers, and his first-hand account was perceived as validation of Stowe’s portrayal of Southern slavery. Twelve Years A Slave was published less than a year after Stowe’s spectacularly successful fiction.” Her own story of discovering the book as a child and then spending decades of her life researching it is pretty interesting as well.

I listened to the audiobook based on Eakin’s version very ably read by Louis Gossett, Jr. and read parts in the Kindle version as well.

Genre: Classic non-fiction
My rating: 10 out of 10

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

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Book Review: The Story Girl

story-girlI read The Story Girl by L. M. Montgomery for Carrie’s  L. M. Montgomery Reading Challenge.

It opens with two brothers, Beverly and Felix King, going to stay with their father’s extended family while he travels to Rio de Janeiro on business. The King family lives on the old family homestead, and Bev and Felix look forward to exploring all the old haunts their father has told them of. The branch of the family they are staying with includes a brother and two sisters, Dan, Felicity, and Cecily King. Another cousin, Sara Stanley, lives with a nearby aunt and uncle. Neighbor Sara Ray and hired boy Peter Craig round out the group.

Sara Stanley is called the Story Girl partly because there is another Sara in the group, but mainly because she has a unique voice and ability to enthrall children and adults alike with the way she tells stories. The book tells of the children’s interactions, adventures, and misadventures, and along the way Sara entertains them with stories. Some are family tales, some are local lore, others are fairy tales or classical stories.

The children range in age from 11 to 14, yet seem younger than children of the same age by today’s standards.

I wondered if one reason Montgomery told stories about children was because she could explore issues through a child’s innocence, lack of experience, and questioning that she might not feel quite the freedom to with adults. For instance, in one chapter the cat is unwell, and some of the children think one of the women in the village put a spell on him when he yelped because she accidentally stepped on his tail. Some don’t think so, but they agree that they need to make an appeal for her to remove the spell and explain that he didn’t mean any harm. They also get some medicine down him, and pray. When he gets well, they argue about whether it was the spell removal, the medicine, or the prayers that cured him. “Thus faith, superstition, and incredulity strove together amongst us, as in all history.” In another, one of them finds an article in the newspaper reporting that someone in the USA predicted the date for Judgment Day. They argue over whether it’s true and what to do about it and respond in a variety of ways.

One story that disturbed me a bit was a legend about how the Milky Way came to be (in the chapter “A Daughter of Eve”). As the story has it, two archangels fell in love, which God did not allow among angels, so He separated them to far sides of the universe. But they loved each other so much, they each began building a bridge of light toward the other, not realizing the other was doing the same. When they met, some of the other angels reported it to God and asked him to punish them. He said, “‘Nay, whatsoever in my universe true love hath builded not even the Almighty can destroy. The bridge must stand forever.” It’s not the fanciful story that bothers me so much as the thought planted in reader’s heads that there is something God is powerless against. In another part of the book, the children wonder what God looks like until finally one of them finds someone who says he has a picture of God in a book at home, and they buy the picture from him for 50 cents. When they see it, they’re sad and dismayed that He looks old and “cross” and intimidating rather than friendly and inviting. They all process this in different ways until they finally ask the minister, who assures them that, though no one really knows what God looks like, He assuredly does not look like this. He tells them to bury the picture. They’re relieved, yet,

We had lost something of infinitely more value than fifty cents, although we did not realize it just then. The minister’s words had removed from our minds the bitter belief that God was like that picture; but on something deeper and more enduring than mind an impression had been made that was never to be removed. The mischief was done. From that day to this the thought or the mention of God brings up before us involuntarily the vision of a stern, angry, old man. Such was the price we were to pay for the indulgence of a curiosity which each of us, deep in our hearts, had, like Sara Ray, felt ought not to be gratified.

To me, planting that thought from the other story that God is powerless against true love does the same thing. Even though we know that’s not true, that thought keeps coming to mind.

But most of the stories and happenings are much lighter. There is a lot of charm in the stories, and I particularly like LMM’s characterizations and how the children play off each other. But there is a bit of a sharp edge, too, when the children are mean to each other, like the constant references to Felix being fat or Dan’s larger than usual mouth. Some of LMM’s writing is lovely; some seems to me to overstep into purple prose. But one of the main points of the story that I love is:

There is such a place as fairyland – but only children can find the way to it. And they do not know that it is fairyland until they have grown so old that they forget the way. One bitter day, when they seek it and cannot find it, they realize what they have lost; and that is the tragedy of life. On that day the gates of Eden are shut behind them and the age of gold is over. Henceforth they must dwell in the common light of the common day. Only a few, who remain children at heart, can ever find that fair, lost path again; and blessed are they above mortals. They, and only they, can bring us tidings from that dear country where we once sojourned and from which we must evermore be exiles. The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and story-tellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.

And I could identify with this, said of the Story Girl:

She loved expressive words, and treasured them as some girls might have treasured jewels. To her, they were as lustrous pearls, threaded on the crimson cord of a vivid fancy. When she met with a new one she uttered it over and over to herself in solitude, weighing it, caressing it, infusing it with the radiance of her voice, making it her own in all its possibilities for ever.

If I still had children of an age to read to, I am not entirely sure I would read this to them: if I did, it would be with some editing and discussions along the way.

One of the reasons I wanted to read this book was that the series “The Road to Avonlea” is based on it and its sequel, The Golden Road. I don’t remember seeing any of the series when it was originally on except for possibly a part of one episode at someone’s house. I had planned to see one before writing this review, but it’s not on Hulu or Netflix. There are excerpts on YouTube, but only 4 or 5 minutes each, with links back to Sullivan Entertainment, where they offer to sell them to you. DVDs are still available, but I didn’t want to buy them – I just wanted to see the first episode. Unfortunately our library system only has one Christmas episode from the series. The part I saw on YouTube had the same feel and look as Sullivan’s production of “Anne of Green Gables” with Megan Follows, but apparently they left out some of the characters and changed various details.

I listened to a free audiobook version on Librivox, which was read by volunteers across the country. Unfortunately, it sounds like it was read by volunteers. The sound quality wasn’t good on all of them: some had static or other noises. Some of the readers did better than others. But…it was free, Audible didn’t have it, and I had more room in my listening time than I did in my reading time, so I pressed on with it. I did get a copy of the book from the library to go over certain parts, and I just discovered a short while ago that the text is online here. I do want to read The Golden Road some time to see what happens with the children.

So – mixed emotions. A lot of good, a handful of qualities I in particular didn’t like. For more enthusiastic reviews, see Hope‘s or Carrie‘s.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)



Mount TBR Reading Challenge Wrap-up

Mount TBR 2016The Mount TBR Reading Challenge had the goal to read books that we already had on hand prior to 2016. For this challenge I completed (the first 12 are from my original list; the rest I added throughout the year in more or less the order I finished them.):

  1. True Woman 201: Interior Design by Mary Kassian and Nancy Leigh DeMoss (Finished 4/16/16)
  2. The Renewing of the Mind Project by Barb Raveling (2015) (Finished 5/23/16)
  3. Beyond Stateliest Marble: The Passionate Femininity of Anne Bradstreet by Douglas Wilson (2001) (Finished 5/1/16)
  4. Ten Fingers For God: The Life and Work of Dr. Paul Brand by Dorothy Clarke Wilson (Finished 8/26/16)
  5. What Are You Afraid Of? Facing Down Your Fears With Faith by David Jeremiah (Finished 2/22/16)
  6. Home to Chicory Lane by Deborah Raney (Finished 9/18/16)
  7. The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay (Finished 2/2/16)
  8. Pride, Prejudice, and Cheese Grits by Mary Jane Hathaway (2014) (Finished 5/24/16)
  9. Searching for Eternity by Elizabeth Musser (Finished 1/16/16)
  10. Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Pamela Smith Hill (Finished 7/11/16)
  11. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (Finished 2/22/16)
  12. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (Finished 3/8/16)
  13. Big Love: The Practice of Loving Beyond Your Limits by Kara Tippetts (Finished 2/14/16)
  14. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Finished 1/13/16)
  15. SEAL of God by Chad Williams and David Thomas (Finished 1/24/16)
  16. Not In the Heart by Chris Fabry (Finished 3/26/16)
  17. A Slender Thread by Tracie Peterson (Finished 4/6/16)
  18. The Reunion by Dan Walsh (Finished 4/10/16)
  19. What Follows After by Dan Walsh (Finished 4/23/16)
  20. The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard by Kara Tippetts (Finished 4/30/16)
  21. One Perfect Spring by Irene Hannon (Finished 5/11/16)
  22. Don’t Let the Goats Eat the Loquat Trees: The Adventures of an American Surgeon in Nepal by Thomas Hale (Finished 6/13/16)
  23. Chateau of Secrets by Melanie Dobson (Finished 6/18/16)
  24. Eight Twenty Eight: When Love Didn’t Give Up by Ian and Larissa Murphy (Finished 6/28/16)
  25. Thin Places: A Memoir by Mary DeMuth (Finished 7/12/16)
  26. The Methusaleh Project by Rick Barry (Finished 7/16/16)
  27. C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead (Finished 7/23/16)
  28. I’m No Angel: From Victoria’s Secret Model to Role Model by Kylie Bisutti (Finished 9/6/16)
  29. Be Faithful (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon): It’s Always Too Soon to Quit! by Warren Wiersbe
  30. Be Mature (James): Growing Up in Christ by Warren Wiersbe
  31. Be Hopeful (1 Peter): How to Make the Best Times Out of Your Worst Times by Warren Wiersbe
  32. Be Real (I John): Turning From Hypocrisy to Truth by Warren Wiersbe, not reviewed. (Not sure of the finish date for the above four – sometime in August or September)
  33. Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids With the Love of Jesus by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson (Finished 10/1/16)
  34. Knowable Word: Helping Ordinary People Learn to Study the Bible by Peter Krol
  35. Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World by Carolyn McCulley (Finished 11/20/16)
  36. The Princess Spy by Melanie Dickerson (Finished 11/15/16)
  37. The Messenger by Siri Mitchell (Finished 12/7/16)
  38. The Christmas Violin by Buffy Andrews (Finished 12/13/16)

The different levels of the challenge are represented by different mountains. I had originally planned to read at least 12 for “Pike’s Peak.” I’m happy I got to the third level, Mt. Vancouver!

Bev also added a fun activity linking the books from our list with familiar proverbs. Mine are:

A stitch in time…with A Slender Thread.
Don’t count your chickens…and Don’t Let the Goats Eat the Loquat Trees.
All good things must come…Home to Chicory Lane.
When in Rome…[see] Our Mutual Friend
A picture is worth…Eight Twenty Eight.
When the going gets tough, the tough get…The Hardest Peace
Two wrongs don’t make…One Perfect Spring.
The pen is mightier than…The Messenger.
The squeaky wheel gets…What Follows After.
Hope for the best, but prepare for…Thin Places.
All that glitters is not…Beyond Stateliest Marble.
Birds of a feather…[attend] The Reunion.

I enjoyed getting to so many of my books on hand (or in my Kindle app) yet allowing for some new reads along the way, too.

Book Review: The Loveliness of Christ

loveliness-of-christPuritan Samuel Rutherford’s writings were the inspiration for one of my favorite hymns (“The Sands of Time Are Sinking“) and he’s the author of one of my favorite quotes, but I had never read anything else from him. So when The Loveliness of Christ came through on a 99 cent Kindle sale last week, I decided to give it a try.

I was disappointed that the selections weren’t essays or letters (except for a few letters at the very end): rather, the book is mainly a selection of quotes gleaned from Rutherford’s letters. The writing is a little hard to understand in places, but there are some gold nuggets here.

After a brief biography of Rutherford, the quotes are listed. I am not sure if they are in random of chronological order: except for the full-length letters at the end, we don’t know to whom or when they were written.

Here are some that most spoke to me:

You will not get leave to steal quietly to heaven, in Christ’s company, without a conflict and a cross.

Christ’s cross is such a burden as sails are to a ship or wings are to a bird.

Let our Lord’s sweet hand square us and hammer us, and strike off the knots of pride, self-love and world-worship and infidelity, that He may make us stones and pillars in his Father’s house.

The devil is but God’s master fencer, to teach us to handle our weapons.

They are not lost to you that are laid up in Christ’s treasury in heaven. At the resurrection ye shall meet with them: there they are, sent before but not sent away. Your Lord loveth you, who is homely to take and give, borrow and lend.

O, what I owe to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus!

Why should I start at the plow of my Lord, that maketh deep furrows on my soul? I know He is no idle husbandman, He purposeth a crop.

How sweet a thing were it for us to learn to make our burdens light by framing our hearts to the burden, and making our Lord’s will a law.

Our fair morning is at hand, the day-star is near the rising, and we are not many miles from home. What does it matter if we are mistreated in the smoky inns of this miserable life? We are not to stay here, and we will be dearly welcomed by Him to whom we go.

When we shall come home and enter to the possession of our Brother’s fair kingdom, and when our heads shall find the weight of the eternal crown of glory, and when we shall look back to pains and sufferings; then shall we see life and sorrow to be less than one step or stride from a prison to glory; and that our little inch of time – suffering is not worthy of our first night’s welcome home to heaven.

Let not the Lord’s dealings seems harsh, rough, or unfatherly, because it is unpleasant. When the Lord’s blessed will bloweth cross your desires, it is best in humility to strike sail to him and to be willing to be laid any way our Lord pleaseth: it is a point of denial of yourself, to be as if ye had not a will, but had made a free disposition of it to God, and had sold it over to him; and to make of his will for your own is both true holiness, and your ease and peace.

Welcome, welcome, Jesus, what way soever Thou come, if we can get a sight of Thee! And sure I am, it is better to be sick, providing Christ come to the bedside and draw by the curtains, and say, “Courage, I am Thy salvation,” than to enjoy health, being lusty and strong, and never to be visited of God.

Faith liveth and spendeth upon our Captain’s charges, who is able to pay for all.

Glorify the Lord in your sufferings, and take his banner of love, and spread it over you. Others will follow you, if they see you strong in the Lord; their courage shall take life from your Christian carriage.

Ye may yourself ebb and flow, rise and fall, wax and wane; but your Lord is this day as he was yesterday; and it is your comfort that your salvation is not rolled upon wheels of your own making, neither have ye to do with a Christ of your own shaping.

If Christ Jesus be the period, the end and lodging-home, at the end of your journey, there is no fear, ye go to a friend…ye may look death in the face with joy.

My Lord Jesus hath fully recompensed my sadness with His joys, my losses with His own presence. I find it a sweet an a rich thing to exchange my sorrows with Christ’s joys, my afflictions with that sweet peace I have with Himself.

The favorite quote I mentioned at the beginning was here only in part: I had seen it in one of Amy Carmichael’s writings as having been a comfort to her when one of the children at her compound died. It was written by Rutherford to someone who had lost a child. The larger quote is “Ye have lost a child: nay she is not lost to you who is found to Christ. She is not sent away, but only sent before, like unto a star, which going out of our sight doth not die and vanish, but shineth in another hemisphere. We see her not, yet she doth shine in another country. If her glass was but a short hour, what she wanteth of time that she hath gotten of eternity; and ye have to rejoice that ye have now some plenishing up in heaven.”

As a collection of quotes, some quite thought-provoking and others requiring thought to process, it seemed to work best to read a few a day rather than trying to take in a lot at one sitting. Even doing that, though, it only took about a week to read.

As you can see from the sampling of quotes here, some of the themes of Rutherford’s writing include the goodness of God in the face of any circumstances, His ability to use those circumstances to shape us, the joy of Christ in this life but especially in the life to come.

I’m glad I spent time with this little book and I’m sure I will again in the future. I’m even inspired to go on to the fuller Letters of Samuel Rutherford some day.

Genre: Christian non-fiction
al objectionable elements: None
My rating: 10 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Carol‘s Books You Loved )

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Book Review: Great British Short Stories: A Vintage Collection of Classic Tales

Classic short storiesI’m not a big fan of short stories, so when I saw a book of short stories listed as one of the options for the Back to the Classics Challenge, I perused a few sources, didn’t see anything that interested me, and decided I’d skip that one. But then I finished all the other options for the challenge and didn’t want to leave that one undone. I finally found an audiobook of Great British Short Stories: A Vintage Collection of Classic Tales, with tales from familiar names like Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Louis Stevenson as well as unfamiliar ones like Barry Pain, James McGovan, and William J. Locke.

There are ten stories in all:

“The Dog” by Arnold Bennett: A man from one class of a family takes out a girl from another class, and, as luck would have it, they have an accident in a very public place, causing trouble in both families. The title and description of the man man throughout as a dog confused me – I wasn’t sure what that meant at the time and whether it was good or bad. The young man seems to think it’s good; the story itself seems to indicate otherwise.

“Not On The Passenger List” by Barry Pain: A widow on a ship to meet the man she is going to marry keeps seeing her dead jealous former husband on the ship.

“The Old Man’s Tale About The Queer Client” by Charles Dickens: The wife and son of a  man in debtor’s prison die, and he vows revenge on the man responsible for putting him there and contributing to their deaths. Not my favorite from Dickens, who didn’t end this on a note of hope and optimism as he usually does, but I was surprised by the twist in who the responsible party was.

“The Half Brothers” by Elizabeth Gaskell: A man marries a widow with a small son; they have another son; the wife dies shortly thereafter; the man blames his step-son. Though the story ends in a tragedy, it brings resolution. A little predictable, at least by today’s standards, but nicely told.

“The Veiled Portrait” by James McGovan: A physician treating an older woman asks to see the painting that she has veiled in her room. It’s a portrait of her wayward son when he was an innocent child. The doctor, who really wanted to be an artist but couldn’t make a living at it, wants to borrow the painting and copy it, or at least make a sketch of it, but she refuses all requests concerning it. He happens to hear of a skilled thief and decides to have him steal the portrait long enough for him to copy and then return it, but things go in a very unexpected way. This was one of my favorite stories in the book.

“Markheim” by  Robert Louis Stevenson: The title character kills a man in order to get to money he has hidden in his business and then is unexpectedly confronted by what he thinks is a demon offering to help him. Shocked, thinking he hasn’t fallen that far, he refuses its help and promises this will be the last bad thing he ever does. Though the first part of the story took much longer than needed to tell, what’s interesting in this one is the moral argument: the being shoots down all of Markheim’s arguments, resolutions, self-deceptions one by one. But there is a surprising twist at the end.

“The Bottle Imp” by Robert Louis Stevenson: A man tries to sell a bottle containing, not a genie, but an imp. The imp will help it’s owner in any way requested, with two caveats: if the bottle isn’t sold before the owner dies, the owner will go to hell, and it must be sold for less than it was bought for.

“The Adventures Of The Kind Mr. Smith” by  William J. Locke: A case of mistaken identity lands an ex-French teacher in the middle of a plan to commit fraud. He keeps up pretenses until the person he is supposed to be shows up. But from there on out, the plot takes continuous surprising turns. Loved this one!

“The Man Of Mystery” by Barry Pain: a butler who keeps his own confidences is dismissed by his employer, until she realizes she wrongly accused him and tries to rectify the situation. Would have liked this one except for someone getting away with and profiting from doing wrong.

“The Brazilian Cat” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A man in financial straits seeks out the help of a cousin who is married to an unfriendly Brazilian woman and keeps a large puma-like Brazilian cat. This was the first non-Sherlock Holmes story I’ve read by Doyle, and it was easily the most suspenseful and exciting in the book.

So, though I am still not likely to seek out short stories in general, this was not an unpleasant excursion. I listened to the audiobook, though there is a print version that can be found through used book sellers. The narrator’s voice and style was a little grating at first, but before long I got used to it and it didn’t bother me any more.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)




Book Review: Gulliver’s Travels

GulliverOne of the categories for the Back to the Classics challenge was a banned or censored book. After perusing several banned book lists, I thought I’d have to skip this category, because what few books I found interesting on the lists were ones I had already read. Then I spied Gulliver’s Travels on a couple of lists. I had heard of it, of course, but had never read it, so I decided to give it a try.

The full original title in 1726 was Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. I’m thankful it was eventually shortened. 🙂 It was written by Jonathan Swift, an Irish Anglican clergyman, politician, and writer best known for his scathing satire.

I knew about Gulliver’s waking up on an island and finding himself tied down by 6-inch people called the Lilliputians, but I hadn’t known of his other travels. The book opens with a very short account of his background, and then launches into his first voyage as a ship’s surgeon. The book is divided into four parts:

Part 1: Lilliput. Gulliver’s boat is shipwrecked and he appears to be the lone survivor. He washes up on an island and wakes up realizing that he can’t move. Swift’s writing is nice here in that he gradually makes us aware through Gulliver’s eyes of what has happened, with the realization that his every limb and even his hair is tied down, to noticing a little person making his way up his body to speak to him. Gulliver and the Lilliputians can’t understand each other, but they are able to make signs to one another, and they eventually take him to their king. Gulliver has a facility for languages, thankfully, and soon can communicate easily. Once he assures the king that he will be loyal to him and careful of his subjects, he’s given free reign to go about the land. In a war with the Lilliputian’s enemies in Blefuscu, Gulliver saves the day by single-handedly capturing their fleet. The Lilliputian king wants Gulliver to help him subdue all his enemies, but Gulliver will not be persuaded to enslave a free people. The king says he understands, but things are not quite the same between them afterward. Then when the queen’s house catches fire, and  people are passing along these pitiful thimble-sized buckets of water to Gulliver to pour on the flames, he realizes he has a better way: he needs to urinate and voluminously does so on the queen’s house, putting out the fire, but seriously offending her. A friend at court alerts Gulliver that plans are being made to put out his eyes and starve him, so he escapes to Blefescu and eventually find an abandoned boat in his size and returns home.

Part 2: Brobdingnag. After a short while at home, Gulliver sets out on another voyage, wherein storms blow his ship off course, and they stop at an island to search for fresh water. Suddenly Gulliver notices that his boat is quickly making out for sea without him, and then notices there is a giant twelve times the size of an ordinary human wading out into the sea after the ship. Gulliver runs the other way and finds himself in a field, where one of the workers notices him and at first thinks he is a bug or animal. He is taken to a farmer and goes through the same method of first signing, then pointing to objects and asking their names, to eventually being able to communicate quite well. The farmer decides to charge to “show” Gulliver several times a day to people for a fee, exhausting him. Eventually he is given an audience with the queen, who buys him from the farmer. The queen treats him well but views him almost as a doll. He encounters problems with flies, rats, and even a monkey. When Gulliver complains of anything, he’s not taken seriously. The king discusses the politics and history of England with Gulliver but belittles them, saying, “I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.”  A search is made for a woman of Gulliver’s size for him to mate with, but he is thankful that none is found, for he would not want to produce a family just to be shown like circus animals. There seems to be no escape for him. But one day a servant takes him in a little box that the queen had made for him to the seashore, where a bird snatches up the box by the clasp on top. When the bird is attacked by other birds, it drops the box into the sea, where it floats until it is found by a ship of men Gulliver’s own size, and he is returned home.

Part 3: Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg,and Glubbdubdrib. Gulliver’s wife does not want him to sail again, but his love of travel and desire to see the world sets him out once more. This time pirates attack his ship, and he maroons an another island. He notices something in the sky and realizes it is a floating island. He gets the attention of the people on it, and they lower a chair to bring him up. The people are his own size, but their “heads were all reclined, either to the right, or the left; one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up.” They were all so absorbed in their own thoughts that they had to hire “flappers” to bop their ears when they needed to listen and their chins when they needed to answer. It took Gulliver a while to convince them he didn’t need that aid. The island was called Laputa, and the king lived there, ruling over the land of Balnibarbi below. The island moves by a magnetic lodestone, and one of the ways the king exerts pressure on his subjects is by centering the floating island above an area so that it receives neither sun nor rain until the people acquiesce. When Gulliver asks to visit the land below, he finds academies and labs full of ludicrous experiments, such as “an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food,” “a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downward to the foundation,” using spider webs instead of silkworms, a method of language reduced to nouns and using objects instead of words. Yet in practical matters, their clothes weren’t measured to fit, their buildings were were not built well, their fields were barren (and one man who worked his fields in the ‘ancient’ manner and had them lush and green was looked down upon.) He eventually finds a voyage back home.

Part 4: The Country of the Houyhnhnms. Gulliver sets sail once again, this time as the captain of a vessel. Several of his men die en route, so he hires men from islands he comes across on the way. But the new hires had been buccaneers and soon persuaded his men to mutiny against him and leave him on the first bit of land they came to. As Gulliver tries to find people on the island to trade with for supplies, he discovers some hideous creatures with long hair on their heads and chest and claw-like nails. They block his path, and he swings his sword to try to fend them off without cutting them. He races to a tree, but they climb up it and defecate on him. Suddenly they all run away, and Gulliver sees a horse on the path, looking at him with wonder. Another horse comes along, and they seem to be conversing. Soon he discovers that horses called Houyhnhnms are the ruling animals here. He is startled and horrified to discover that the creatures he first encountered, called Yahoos, are actually human. The Houyhnhnms think he is  Yahoo as well, but agree that he has more reason than the others do. One takes him into his home. Gulliver admires the virtues and reasonableness of the Houyhnhnms so well that he is ashamed to be a lowly Yahoo. The Houyhnhnms are something like Vulcans: big on reason but short on emotion. When Gulliver is grieved at being expelled from the area because it’s not seemly for a Houyhnhnm to have a Yahoo in his home, and finds passage back to England, he can’t stand the sight and smell of other humans, associating them with Yahoos, even though they show great kindness, like the captain who finds and provides for him. He is repulsed by his wife and children, but buys a couple of horses and converses with them several hours a day.

Many points in this book would have been so recognized at the time that it was published anonymously and Swift’s publisher edited out some of the most offensive sections. In a later edition, Swift added a fictional letter as if from Gulliver to his cousin fussing about the alterations, saying. “I do hardly know mine own work.” Wikipedia, SparkNotes, Shmoop, and CliffsNotes all had good information about what the satire referred to, though they disagreed in a couple of particulars. Cliifsnotes was the most extensive, and their Philosophical and Political Background and Essay on Swift’s Satire and Gulliver as a Dramatis Persona were quite enlightening. Shmoop’s character list and analysis gave a fairly succinct explanation of who or what the different characters represented.

But Swift satirizes several things in this book that one can easily pick up on without knowing the references. Travel books, for one: he mentions several times that he is telling the “truth,” not like so many other travelogues that exaggerate and make up stories. He pokes fun at the fact that every government thinks it is the best form, at academia that is so wrapped up in the theoretical that it is impractical, at the bluster and self-importance of people like the Lilliputians, who could have been easily crushed if Gulliver had had a mind to, the arrogant exaltation of reason that lacks empathy and emotion, the tendency of “big government” to be so far removed from the needs of the “little people.” The silly rope dances that people who wanted to advance in the kingdom had to do easily makes fun of the hoops similar officials have to jump through that have little to do with skill. The conflicts between the Big Endians and Little Endians over the right way to break an egg and those who prefer high heels or low heels satirizes how ridiculous some conflicts between factions can be (as well as an heir to the crown who hobbles because he wears one big heel and one low heel to please both sides). And, finally, he satirizes man’s faults and foibles in general.

I can understand why the book has been censored, aside from the political views of its day. There’s quite a lot about bodily functions in addition to Gulliver’s urinating on the queen’s quarters to put out a fire. There are also some parts that would be considered risqué.

Excepting one particular section, I enjoyed the book and am glad to know some of these cultural references. I hadn’t realized that the term yahoo as “an uncultivated or boorish person” originated here.

I enjoyed the audiobook narrated by David Hyde Pierce, who did an excellent job. I especially liked how he pronounced Houyhnhnm and some of the Houyhnhnm words with a little whinny in his voice. I also reread some sections more closely in the Gutenberg version online.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)


Book Review: The Wind in the Willows

I never read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame as I was growing up: I don’t think I had even heard of it. I didn’t read it to my children, but we did watch a video of it which I thoroughly could not stand. It mainly focused on Toad’s misadventures with his car, and Toad just irritated me to no end.

But reading some of C. S. Lewis’s books over the last couple of years, particularly On Stories, I saw that he mentioned it quite a lot, and some of his comments spurred me to give it a try.

It begins with Mole getting exasperated by his spring cleaning and escaping out into the forest, running about to his heart’s content, until he comes to a river, which he has never seen before. Delighted by the sight, he notices the Water Rat, who invites him into his boat for a ride. Mole has never been in a boat and is thrilled. He ends up not only having a picnic with Rat, but going to stay at his house for a time and meeting Otter, Badger, and eventually Toad.

Otter is more of a secondary character, but Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad become fast friends. Badger is introverted and doesn’t come into society much, but is friendly when he does. He was an old friend of Toad’s father and is very wise. Rat loves his boat, believes “there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” and likes to write poetry and songs. Mole is an all-around good fellow but gets into trouble by extending himself past his experience and ability a couple of times, until near the end, when his doing so saves the day. Toad is rich, pompous, conceited, undisciplined, and goes full-bore into whatever his current interests are (and I still don’t like him very much. 🙂 ) When he discovers motor cars, he’s almost a lost cause.

There are almost two stories intertwined in the book: the raucous Toad’s pursuit of cars, wrecks, theft of one, imprisonment, disguise, escape, wild journey back home, and defense of his home from the weasels and stoats who overtook it while he was away, and then the quieter, gentler, homier experiences of the other animals. I like the second much better, but I understand that a book especially for children needs some action.

If I had to try to sum up what the book was about overall, the theme that comes to me is friendship. Each of the friends extends himself for the others at various points (except Toad, unless you want to count his final trying to rein himself in after several false repentances as an effort for his friends’ sake). They often inconvenience themselves greatly for each other, are kind to his others’ foibles, encourage and look out for each other.

There is one odd little section where Mole and Rat are helping to search for Otter’s lost little one and come upon the god Pan playing his pipes and watching over the little Otter. There reaction personifies reverence:

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently…

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously…

‘Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. ‘Are you afraid?’

‘Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. ‘Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

I was curious to know what Grahame might have meant by it, especially since one of his previous books is titled Pagan Papers. I found a variety of opinions about it: one professing pagan fully embraced it as pagan worship and called Pan his favorite god; one thought it was a representation of Christ, as Aslan was in the Narnia books (and was taken to task in the comments); one thought it was a personification of nature. I still don’t know Grahame’s intention, though. I know C. S. Lewis used the mythic gods as something almost like superheroes, maybe just above or below the angels but definitely above man, yet in service to the one true God. I did read that some newer editions leave out this section, and I wasn’t the only reader that thought it was anomalous. But one of the posts I read – I forget which one – pointed out that though Pan made an appearance in person, his influence was all throughout the book. And when I went back and reread the first few pages, I thought that might be true: the way nature is spoken of is the same there as it is in the section with Pan. So I am a little wary: if I was reading this to my children, we’d have to have a discussion about it.

I went back and skimmed through the couple of books by C. S. Lewis looking for one quote in particular that most influenced me to read the book, and, frustratingly, I could not find it. If my memory is correct, I thought it had to do with dealing with ridiculous people (Toad in this case), and it helped me in regarding a ridiculous person or two in my acquaintance. But here are a few other quotes from Lewis about Wind in the Willows:

Does anyone believe that Kenneth Grahame made an arbitrary choice when he gave his principal character the form of a toad, or that a stag, a pigeon, a lion would have done as well? The choice is based on the fact that the real toad’s face has a grotesque resemblance to a certain kind of human face–a rather apoplectic face with a fatuous grin on it. This is, no doubt, an accident in the sense that all the lines which suggest the resemblance are really there for quite different biological reasons. The ludicrous quasi-human expression is therefore changeless: the toad cannot stop grinning because its ‘grin’ is not really a grin at all. Looking at the creature we thus see, isolated and fixed, an aspect of human vanity in its funniest and most pardonable form; following that hint Grahame creates Mr. Toad–an ultra-Jonsonian ‘humour’ (On Stories, p. 13).

It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back to our daily lives unsettled and discontented. I do not find that it does so. The happiness which it presents to us is in fact full of the simplest and most attainable things–food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion. That ‘simple but sustaining meal’ of ‘bacon and broad beans and a macaroni pudding’ which Rat gave to his friends has, I doubt not, helped down many a real nursery dinner. And in the same way the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual (On Stories, p. 14. Incidentally, the paragraph just after this one contains the quote, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty–except, of course, books of information.”)

The Hobbit escapes the danger of degenerating into mere plot and excitement by a very curious shift of tone. As the humour and homeliness of the early chapters, the sheer ‘Hobbitry’, dies away we pass insensibly into the world of epic. It is as if the battle of Toad Hall had become a serious heimsókn and Badger had begun to talk like Njal (On Stories, p. 18).

I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last (On Stories, essay “On Three Ways of Writing For Children,” p. 33).

Consider Mr Badger… that extraordinary amalgam of high rank, coarse manners, gruffness, shyness and goodness. The child who has once met Mr Badger has ever afterwards, in its bones, a knowledge of humanity and of English social history which it could not get in any other way (On Stories, “On Three Ways of Writing For Children,” (p. 37).

If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables…A dim perception of the richness inherent in this kind of unity is one reason why we enjoy a book like The Wind in the Willows; a trio such as Rat, Mole, and Badger symbolises the extreme differentiation of persons in harmonious union, which we know intuitively to be our true refuge both from solitude and from the collective (The Weight of Glory, essay “Membership,” p. 165).

That last one may have been the one I was searching for initially, because I remembered it had to do with unity among different kinds of people. But I had thought the quote I had in mind mentioned Toad specifically and had the word “ridiculous” in it, so maybe not.

I’ve been giving Toad a hard time, but some people do find him lovable and funny despite his foibles.

Now, for a few favorite quotes from the book itself:

He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver—glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.

They braced themselves for the last long stretch, the home stretch, the stretch that we know is bound to end, some time, in the rattle of the door-latch, the sudden firelight, and the sight of familiar things greeting us as long-absent travellers from far over-sea…

We others, who have long lost the more subtle of the physical senses, have not even proper terms to express an animal’s inter-communications with his surroundings, living or otherwise, and have only the word ‘smell,’ for instance, to include the whole range of delicate thrills which murmur in the nose of the animal night and day, summoning, warning, inciting, repelling. It was one of these mysterious fairy calls from out the void that suddenly reached Mole in the darkness, making him tingle through and through with its very familiar appeal, even while yet he could not clearly remember what it was. He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current, that had so strongly moved him. A moment, and he had caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood.

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment, his old home that he had hurriedly forsaken and never sought again, that day when he first found the river! And now it was sending out its scouts and its messengers to capture him and bring him in. Since his escape on that bright morning he had hardly given it a thought, so absorbed had he been in his new life, in all its pleasures, its surprises, its fresh and captivating experiences. Now, with a rush of old memories, how clearly it stood up before him, in the darkness! Shabby indeed, and small and poorly furnished, and yet his, the home he had made for himself, the home he had been so happy to get back to after his day’s work. And the home had been happy with him, too, evidently, and was missing him, and wanted him back, and was telling him so, through his nose, sorrowfully, reproachfully, but with no bitterness or anger; only with plaintive reminder that it was there, and wanted him.

The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.

Take the Adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes!’ ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company.

Another theme in the book seems to be the contrast between going on adventures – usually fun and enlightening – and coming home, even more delightful.

I did not find a lot of biographical information about Grahame online or in the sketches in the books I looked at, but they all said this book grew out of stories he used to tell to his only son, Alastair. The son seemed to have a number of problems, and Toad was based on his personality. Sadly, Alastair took his own life as a young adult.

I listened to an audiobook version, and sampled several narrations before choosing the one I initially did. Unfortunately I had not listened far enough to catch the character voices, and that narrator’s voice for Mole was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Thankfully Audible allows returns, so I exchanged that one for this one narrated by Michael Hordern, and found it much more cozy and not at all grating.

WillowsAnd though I very much enjoyed the audiobook, I felt this book might best be enjoyed in a full-color illustrated version. I tried this Kindle one, but the pictures were very small. The only copy I could find in our nearby branch library just had line drawings by Ernest Shepard rather than color illustrations, but after I got over their not being in color, the drawings did enhance the story a lot. I had not thought of Toad as comical (though he is supposed to be) until seeing Shepherd’s illustrations, especially of Toad’s disguise as a washerwoman. Shepard includes a nice introduction about showing his drawings to Grahame.


I hope you’ll forgive the length of this review. It’s more than a review, really: I like to try to note my thoughts and reactions for my own benefit and memory rather than just writing a shorter and more focused review like you’d find on Amazon or Goodreads, but that means some of it might be extraneous to my readers.

Except for the odd bit about Pan, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and understand why it is a classic. I am glad I finally read it and imagine I will turn to it again some time.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)