Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy

The Scarlet Pimpernel
Baroness Emma Orczy
Published 1905

This is not a title I see on many TBR lists. Ok, I never see this on TBR lists. It was not on the top of mine, but I remembered that I had planned to read it to my kids when we came to the French Revolution in our history studies. 

The story of the Scarlet Pimpernel is no stranger to our family. Five years ago, we met Sir Percy and Lady Blakeney, the hero and heroine of The Scarlet Pimpernel. They were guests at our closing school year ball, back in 2013.

Sir Percy & Lady Blakeney

Our family w/ Sir Percy and Lady Blakeney

Sir Percy was a big hit with the ladies.

Sir Percy Blakeney, pretending to be asleep

But in all seriousness, I knew about the plot (though instead of reading the book, I watched the 1982 film, staring Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews), and it is a very charming story. Since it took place during the Reign of Terror (and the Scarlet Pimpernel is rather like a super hero - and what kid doesn't like super heroes?), I had to read it to my kids.

Overall, it is more about the love story between the seemingly dull, but fashionable Englishman, Sir Percy, and his admirably intelligent French wife, Lady Blakeney, than it is about the historical details of the French Revolution. There are no gory reveals of the deadly guillotine and its murderous results. It is more about cunning characters, tricky adventures, and of course, a lot of misunderstanding.

The underlying focus is the courageous band of men, led by the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel who leaves his identifying mark behind when he has done his deed, which is to rescue French aristocrats from the grip of the bloodthirsty revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror.

There are some twists and turns in the plot, which keep you guessing and wondering, until the very end when the true identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel is revealed. And of course, there is a happy ending.

Frankly, as I have already said, the story is charming and sweet, but what I miss from the book is the strong emotion between Percy and his wife. There is a terrible misunderstanding that causes a rift between them for much of the story, and the film does a better job expressing and revealing those feelings. Or maybe I was just focusing too much time on trying to pronounce all the French words properly that I missed the emotion. Ah, well.

In addition, the film changed some of the details of the action, including the way the story ended (with a sword fight, because sword fights are cool), but without compromising the plot. The book ending was a little dubious, but maybe because I am partial to sword fights.

Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews, 1982

Is this book for you?

Simply, if you love sweet love stories, with a bit of adventure and lightheartedness, this is a short, but sweet (haha) love story, with a happy ending. But do watch the 1982 film version (for free on Youtube) because the movie bridges some gaps in the story, and the emotion and chemistry between Seymour and Andrews is just perfect. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Disliked/Hated but Am Really Glad I Read

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
This book is full of racist-filled vitriol,
until the final chapters.
Glad I persevered.

Mein Kampf
I almost skipped this,
but I am content to admit that I read this
interminable, tedious, self-serving, autobiography. Yuck.

Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck
What a train wreck! Totally overrated.
But at least I know that now.

The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James
One of the most frustrating stories I have ever read.
I'm still seething at Henry James.
(Update: Right now, I am reading Tess of D'Urbervilles,
and Hardy may have taken James' place.)

The Histories
The Ancients are like spinach;
healthy for you, but . . .

The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself
This autobiography was about one woman's exhausting quest
to be worthy enough, except, we never will be worthy.
Hence, I took the opportunity to explain why.

The Stranger
Albert Camus
The absurd story about the absurd philosophy of Absurdism;
yet it was another perfect opportunity to discuss truth.

Wuthering Heights
Emily Brontë
The only thing I can say is,
"I read it, and now I know why almost everyone hates it."

The Book of Margery Kempe
Margery Kempe
This poor woman was not the only one tormented and tortured.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede

The Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Written AD 731

This book is from my Well-Educated Mind Reading Challenge. It started off well, as Bede described the makeup of the early people of Britain, then mentioned Gaius, Diocletian, Valentinian, Augustine of Canterbury, the Arians, and other names from history I am familiar; but when "the river ran dry in its bed and left [Alban] a way to cross," I became a little skeptical. I noted in the margin: not sure I believe this. When Germanus used relics of saints to restore a young girl's eyesight, I added: I really cannot believe this. 

After that, they were such a distraction -- miracles, spirits, visions, raising people from the dead, healing people by drinking water that touched the relics of dead saints, and incorruptible bodies after death. I could give examples, but why spoil the story?

Look! Here are some samples of my margin notes or exclamations:

I'm not sure what to think about this.
OK, I'm not sure I believe this.
Jesus performed a miracle through Augustine?
What the...?
Peter appears to Laurence! (That's Peter, the Apostle.)
Mellitus put out a fire through faith. (Who needs water?)
Huh, what? Peter isn't her protector. I'm sure of it.
Oh, great. Now he's seeing visions.
But Jesus already saved him when He died on the cross. Why did [King Edwin] have to do more?
Again, I have a hard time believing this stuff.
Incorruptible body?
No, come on!
This is ridiculous!
This is hog wash. 
Healed by fairy dust. This does not glorify Jesus.
No, no, no! So ridiculous.
This is total blasphemy.
This is such a lie.
Not possible. Wrong.
Baptism does not save you.
Oh, this is crazy.
Another weird occurrence.
Another weird idea.
Really, this is lame.
A 3-year old boy has prophetic vision? Seriously?
Why would she need to do this since Jesus paid it all?
The Apostles meet with a boy. They're dead! 
Having a hard time with this.
Again, not believing this.
This doesn't give life; Jesus' death does.
What is going on with this foretelling?
Return from the dead?

Hmmm . . . grunt.

Bede 672-735

I struggle with what more to say about this. I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, though 2.5 would have been more accurate. The fact that it was written in the 8th century carries some weight, especially because Bede recollects emperors, popes, kings, as well as political and historical conflicts.

The obstacle is my lack of sympathies over early or medieval Catholic Church history and my struggle believing mystical and supernatural ideas committed by men. Bede's Ecclesiastical History is full of these wonders, which he claims to have collected from previous ancient sources and by those who declared to have witnessed these events. 

As I understand, these wonders began to slow down or cease by the end of the Apostolic Age, with the end of the Apostles -- men who walked with Jesus and saw Him at his Resurrection -- and shortly after the arrival of the Holy Spirit. In other words, by the 2nd century the abundance of miracles or supernatural occurrences decreased or were unnecessary because the Holy Spirit took its place in the hearts of believers. And frankly, the idea that relics (objects touched by dead saints) have any saving power is just a reckless manmade idea. 

So . . . is this book for you?

If you are interested in early history (through 8th century), particularly early English history, and even more especially the spread of Christianity throughout England, and you are not bothered by mystical ideas, then this is for you. It is not a long book, and it is fairly easy reading. Knock yourself out. I am ready to move on to the next book in TWEM Histories: The Prince, by Machiavelli.

Friday, April 20, 2018

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

On the Banks of Plum Creek
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published 1937

Laura was a big girl, seven years old. She was too big to cry. But she could not help asking, "Pa did you have to give him Pet and Patty? Did you, Pa?"
Pet and Patty were the ponies from Indian Territory that Pa traded for two strong oxen, necessary to break up the earth for a crop of wheat. Pa envisioned a "great big field" of wheat, but all Laura could think of was Pet and Patty.

(Notice how God is preparing Laura for a horse-loving husband?)

Well, since Indian Territory was off limits, Pa took his family to the banks of Plum Creek, in Minnesota. For awhile they lived in a dug out, which was a hole dug under the ground. Gratefully, I cannot miss the lovely descriptions of the morning glories, which surround the dug out entrance and  brighted any dwelling:
All around the door green vines were growing out of the grassy bank, and they were full of flowers. Red and blue and purple and rosy pink and white and stripped flowers all had their throats wide open as if they were singing to the morning. They were morning glory flowers.
Moving into the dug out

After settling into the dug out, Ma observed how "peaceful and tame" it all was and said she "felt so safe and at rest." Pa answered,
We're safe enough, all right. Nothing can happen here."
You know, I appreciate Pa's optimism and cheery outlook, but I guess he did not know about Murphy's Law.

Pa went to town, literally and figuratively, building a wood frame house with glass windows and a stove. He paid for it all with that wheat field that was yet to be harvested.
When that crop was harvested, Pa [continued saying], they'd be out of debt and have more money than they knew what to do with. He'd have a buggy, Ma would have a silk dress, they'd all have new shoes and eat beef every Sunday.
That was before the grasshoppers came.

Millions of grasshoppers. They settled on the land and ate up that wheat crop and everything else green in sight. In addition, there was no rain, and Plum Creek ran dry.

Pa, who did not know that after donating his last $3 for the bell in the new church belfry instead of replacing his hole-y boots, would end up needing to walk several hundred miles in those hole-y boots to find work, back east, to pay for that new house after the grasshoppers took his wheat field.

It was a miserable, hot summer, but Ma, being a tenacious woman, an excellent example of leadership in forbearance and fortitude, managed the several weeks without Pa.

When Pa was ready to sow another crop, he realized that the grasshoppers had laid millions of eggs, which he knew, once hatched, would begin eating everything green in sight; therefore, it would foolish for him to bother. He would lose another year of harvest.

Hence, it was off to the East again.

The grasshoppers finally left, in grand array, and Pa brought back enough income to pay most of their debt and still buy shoes for Mary, material to make dresses, and even some food supplies.

While the grasshoppers were the most horrific and creepy event in the story, Pa was also lost in a blizzard for three days. He survived on oyster crackers and Christmas candy.

Meanwhile, the more entertaining events of the story involved Nellie Olsen. Laura met Nellie at school in town, and Nellie was the quintessential spoiled snob. Once inviting Laura, Mary, and several other school girls to her house for a town party, she badly mistreated and shamed Laura.

Nellie Olsen, in true fashion, at her party

Ma suggested they return the favor and invite Nellie and the town girls for a party at their home in the country, and Laura sought an opportunity of retribution. She tricked Nellie into the muddy creek waters, where the blood suckers lurked. You can guess what happened.

Come on. You know you would be cheering Laura, and holding your side from laughter, too.

I admit it: I was.

Laura recalled many other personal childhood memories in this story, which remains one of my favorites of the series, but there are many more to come. I anxiously look forward to my next read: By the Shores of Silver Lake. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen
Published 1817
The Classics Club II

Yay! This was my last Austen novel. From now on, whenever I read Jane Austen, I will only be rereading her works, which means they will only get better. 

Northanger Abbey had a very interesting and intriguing beginning. Young Catherine had wild ideas about the world because of her book reading -- you understand how that is -- and when an older couple of friends invited her to Bath, her adventures began.

She soon met wealthy prince charming, Henry Tilney, and social butterfly, Isabella Thorpe. She spent much of her time with Isabella discussing gothic novels, gossiping about Henry Tilney, and dancing at balls. Later, Catherine became acquainted with Henry's sweet sister, Eleanor, and they developed a special friendship.

Catherine & Isabella

Meanwhile, Isabella liked Catherine's brother, James, who was also friends with Isabella's annoying brother, John. John and Isabella manipulated naive Catherine into double dates for the four of them, while interfering in her friendships with Henry and Eleanor.

Catherine later met Henry and Eleanor's older brother, Captain Tilney, and their father, General Tilney, who liked Catherine very much and invited her to stay with them at Northanger Abbey when they left Bath. Because of her infatuation with Gothic novels, Catherine was ecstatic about staying at the Abbey, and she soon began exploring or being nosey. She also had some preconceived notions concerning personal family business, which caught her in an embarrassing situation with Henry.



Then something absolutely terrible and unexpected happened, or at least I did not see it coming. It seemed like poor Catherine was too foolish and ignorant of the world, and she would continue to be tossed around, taken advantage of, or always in the dark. When would she wise up? 

Yet, even after her unfortunate treatment, she maintained an optimistic attitude. 

And good thing this was a Jane Austen novel because Catherine was not left to society's unfair edicts. Things would turn out well in her favor after all. 


Personally Speaking

Some of the characters in this novel were outrageous, and I had a difficult time liking them; but that was to be expected because in time they were exposed to be ill-mannered and self-centered. 

Nonetheless, even Henry was a challenge to like because he was mysterious. But overall, Catherine was a sweet, gentle creature who thought everyone had a transparent heart like her own. Fortunately for Catherine, her naïveté would not ruin her opportunity for happiness.

Northanger Abbey has a heavy gothic feel, which was intended. Towards the end of the story it felt like it could have used more substance, but it was not a major issue for me.

Is this book for you?

If you are in the business of reading Jane Austen's novels, don't pass on this one. You would miss her happy, humorous, charming ideas and delightful language.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels, by Deirdre Le Faye

Jane Austen The World of Her Novels
Deirdre Le Faye
Published 2002

This beautiful little book is the setting for the story of Jane Austen, her world, and her novels. 

Part I covers the biography of her upbringing, influences, misfortunes, individual family members, and a short history of England and her connection to the rest of the world during Austen's lifetime. 

Part II gives a short summary of her six main novels, as well as The Watsons and Sandition, including descriptions of architecture, towns, current events, customs, and people. It is entertainingly interesting and historically, biographically, and culturally informative.  

Look at these beautiful images: my favorites are these portraits of King George III, his wife, Charlotte, and all of their children (minus one child), painted by British artist, Thomas Gainsborough. 

Portraits of the Royal Family, 1782, by Gainsborough

There are numerous maps throughout the book, taken from The English Atlas, including Derbyshire, Kent, Hampshire, Somersetshire, Hertfordshire, Devonshire, and more.

Map of England and Wales

There are so many beautiful images of drawings and paintings of both men and women, including soldiers in uniform of the day, to illustrate what characters may have worn or what they may have even looked like. When it came to Jane's characters, as well as her settings, it was important for people and places to be extremely realistic.

Bridal dress, 1816
Miniature of unknown young lady by Andrew Robertson.
"Her haughty expression suggests a likeness to
Emma Woodhouse."

The author included many photos, paintings and drawings of cottages, manors, abbeys, inns, halls, and other houses to give the reader an idea of the architecture of time and place of Austen's upbringing or those mentioned in her novels.

Houses in St. Thomas St. Portsmouth,
similar to the one the Price family would have lived in.

There are also images of objects, such as personal belongings of Jane's family or items that were written about in the novels, such as the table cabinet from Northangar Abbey. Until this picture, I was unable to visualize it while I read the novel.

Black and gold japanned table cabinet, 1700,
like the one Catherine Morland
found in the bedroom of Northangar Abbey

Finally, there were plenty of photos of places where Jane grew up or settings from her novels.

The Cobb, Lyme Regis, as it is today - used in Persuasion.

A Room of Her Own

The story of Jane's life initially made me feel slightly melancholy for her because she was not well and died so young. I considered it unfortunate that she wrote stories of match-making, finding love, and ultimately getting married, as if that were all that mattered in the world. Part of me wondered if that was her own heart; and yet, it was not to be because she never found a suitable mate, and before long, she could only focus on her bad health. She died never having someone special to call her own.

Oh, poor Jane, I thought. 

Then it occurred to me: Jane may not have been so bad off after all -- for her time, that is; she had a room of her own. Yes, she did. She wrote! She wrote stories that have endured time. She preserved a culture and a history through her stories. How many woman could have boasted such achievements in the early 1800s? It certainly made me feel better.

Now that I read this, I want to reread all of the Austen novels. ASAP.

Is this book for you?

If you are a fan of Jane Austen, her novels, British culture and history, then yes, you will definitely enjoy this well-written, thorough examination of Jane Austen's life and her important contribution to the literary world. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Farmer Boy
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published 1933

"When a man undertakes a job, he has to stick to it till he finishes it." ~ Father
Farmer Boy tends to be a popular favorite of the Little House series. It is a charming story, written by Laura as a compilation of childhood tales about her husband; I wonder what Almanzo thought of it.

I love to read Farmer Boy for the great quotes about work, life, and America. I won't write a synopsis this time because you can read that HERE.

Instead, here are some of my favorite sections, with the help of Laura Ingalls Wilder's whimsical writing skill. For example, Almanzo, age 9, and his sister Alice (close to his age) were working in the field when Almanzo, observing how his sister had to wear a dress while she worked, asked if she didn't want to be a boy. She first answered yes, but changed her mind. She added,
"Boys aren't pretty like girls, and they can't wear ribbons."
"I don't care how pretty I be," Almanzo said. "And I wouldn't wear ribbons anyhow."
"Well, I like to  make butter and I like to patch quilts, and cook, and sew, and spin. Boy's can't do that. But even if I be a girl, I can drop potatoes and sow carrots and drive horses as well as you can." 
So there.

Almanzo was so eager to grow up and be responsible. He did love to care for the farm animals:
He helped to feed the patient cows, and the horses eagerly whinnying over the bars of their stalls, and the hungrily bleating sheep, and the grunting pigs. And he felt like saying to them all: "You can depend on me. I'm big enough to take care of you all."
When Almanzo asked his father why he did not hire out the work of threshing, using a machine, his father explained how that was work for the lazy man who rather have more time on his hands than prevent waste and do a good job.
"All it saves is time, son. And what good is time, with nothing to do? You want to sit and twiddle your thumbs, all these stormy winter days?"
"No," said Almanzo. He had enough of that on Sundays. 
My favorite, favorite section I copied into my journal was the whole lecture on Independence Day. It is too long to record here, but to shorten it . . . on July Fourth, the town had a celebration and lit the cannons.
"That's the noise that made the Redcoats run!" Mr. Paddock said to Father." 
Father replied that muskets may have won the Revolution, but it was axes and plows that made America. Almanzo wanted to know what he meant. Father explained that the War was fought for a little strip of land, but "it was farmers who went over the mountains and cleared the land and settled it and farmed it, and hung on to their farms." Yes, it was Indian Territory, and the Spanish, French, and English owned parts of it, but they weren't interested in developing the land like the farmers were.

There's something to say about a farmer. That was what Almanzo aspired to be when he grew up.

And he did.

Almanzo and Laura at Rocky Ridge Farm, 1940s

Sunday, March 25, 2018

City of God Part I, by Augustine,

City of God, or
Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, 
Part One
Saint Augustine, translated by Henry Bettenson
Written AD 5th Century

Ten years ago I thought it would be really cool to read City of God, by Augustine. I saw the title on a list of great books to read before you die, and I panicked and immediately picked up a copy from my library.

It was not a smart move because I was in no way mentally prepared to read it, let alone commit to City of God. Hence, it sat unread on my nightstand for three weeks until I dejectedly returned it to the library before late fees kicked in.

Fast forward these ten years, when I come face-to-face with City of God again. It is not the first time I have met with Augustine. Just a genre ago, the biographies of the WEM Reading Challenge, I read Confessions -- much shorter, but nonetheless, still deep and rich in content and ideas.

Not only did Confessions pave the way for City of God, but so has my entire reading journey since January 2012. Basically, six years of learning to study books (via TWEM) have finally prepared me to get through this major work. Well, part way.

And now I do feel really cool -- but not in an arrogant way, I promise.

Augustine of Hippo

Susan Wise Bauer suggests reading an abridged version, but I apparently missed that before I had bought a used copy. This tome is divided into two parts. Part One is only 426 pages, broken up into ten books, with smaller chapters inside each book, labeled by informative headings, which are extremely helpful.

While this is an historical read, it is also definitely philosophical.

My initial expectations were that this was about Rome, though I know not how I figured that out. Anyway, it is about Rome, in a lot of ways, but it is also about God's community of Christians on earth.

Summary of what is in Part One

The Pagans blamed the Christians for the fall of Rome, but Augustine described how Christians also suffered; and furthermore, he argued that it was Christianity that ultimately saved Rome.

He lashed out personally against the indecent pagan gods of Rome who offered nothing but immorality and lies to their believers. He reminded his readers how the gods did not protect Troy (Ilium) or Rome from destruction, and he provided examples of the absurdity and uselessness of these numerous gods that were created by man and were really demons.

Augustine also discussed the problems with astrology, as well as the benefits of virtues. He gave a summary of Roman history, where it went wrong, and how God supported the Christian emperors.

The Course of Empire Desolation (1836) - Cole Thomas

There is a book reserved for an explanation of the gods, what they represented, and how they came to be. Augustine writes about Varro, Socrates, and Plato and the Platonist's philosophy, and how Platonists were closest to Christian truth, although they had refused to acknowledge Christ as the only way to salvation. There is another long section on Apuleius an Neoplatonists, of which I knew nothing at all.

A major theme was felicity (intense happiness). Augustine said that God was the giver of true happiness; and since man is so desperate for happiness, he should just worship God. Plain and simple. Instead man invented a goddess of felicity (whom I had never heard of), who should have been successful enough to take the place of all other gods and ideas, but obviously she failed, too.

I left a lot of other topics out. In most cases, Augustine had much to say about what he had to say, and his arguments were very illuminating and interesting. I could sense his emotions; he was rather irritated that he had to write about these arguments at all. Sometimes he was raw and even sarcastic, such as when he suggested that
men should seek to gain virtue from him who alone can grant it and the whole mob of false gods should be sent packing.
Often Augustine broke off topic and went on a tangent about Christian philosophy and truth. For example, he said,
The sacrifice offered to God is a broken spirit; God will not despise a heart that is broken and humbled.
These were my favorite tangents.

About the City of God, he said,
Indeed this house, the City of God, which is the holy Church, is now being built in the whole world after the captivity in which the demons held captive those men who, on believing in God have become like 'living stones' of which the house is being built.
To get an idea of my opinion about City of God, Part One, the majority of pages in my copy looked like this:

Is this book for you?

If you like ancient history, Christian philosophy, and philosophy in general, you can do this.

Truly, it has been enjoyable, but it is looooooooong. I still have another twelve books to read before I am done, which should be about Christmas this year.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books On My Spring TBR

City of God
I still plan to continue reading this until I finish it.

On the Banks of Plum Creek AND 
By the Shores of Silver Lake AND
The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder

Ecclesiastical History of the English People
I already started this.

The Prince

Formation of Character
Charlotte Mason
Already started this, too.

Reflections on the Revolution in France
Edmund Burke
Thinking of reading this.

Jude the Obscure  OR
Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
Still not convicted about which one to read first. ?????

A Woman's Education 
Jill Ker Conway