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Damerosehay novels by Elizabeth Goudge

The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge.
Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge.
The Heart of the Family by Elizabeth Goudge.

I read these three related novels in the wrong order. I read Pilgrim’s Inn and reviewed it before I read The Bird in the Tree, the book that begins the saga of the Eliot family and their association with the house, Damerosehay. Then I found a mass market paperback copy of The Heart of the Family at a thrift store for 50 cents, and I brought it home and read it. Each of the three books in the ongoing story was a delight, a joy, and a wonder. I now want to re-read them all in the correct order, just to see what I missed the first time through. But I think I’ll wait a year or so, maybe read them in the winter rather than in the summer, just to see if that changes my appreciation of these novels or my thoughts and feelings about them.

The Bird in the Tree is the story of a man, David Eliot, who has fallen in love with his uncle’s young wife. The wife, Nadine, also loves David Eliot passionately and her own husband, George Eliot, not at all. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, there are children: sensitive Ben, rambunctious Tommy, and shy diminutive four year old Caroline. And also there is Lucilla Eliot, matriarch of the family, to consider. Lucilla has made the country home, Damrosehay, a sanctuary and a place of community for the Eliots and those who love them. Lucilla, with the help of her spinster daughter Margaret, raised David after the death of his parents during The Great War. And Lucilla will not be pleased with the idea that David and Nadine plan to disregard family ties, tradition, morality, and the children, to follow their own hearts in consummating this love of a lifetime.

Elizabeth Goudge shows how this new “freedom to be true to one’s own heart” is not so new, after all. We hope to call the old adultery and sexual immorality by new names such as “truth” and “beauty” and free love and thereby make them palatable and without negative consequences for family unity and especially for the children. One of the reasons I love this trilogy is that each book, in its own narrative way, shows the falsity of that lie. Sin, whether we call it sin or whether we call it freedom and truth, has its consequences, and the only way to live through the consequences is to accept the suffering and offer it up to God as prayer and sacrifice.

I wrote about Pilgrim’s Inn here. Such a wonderful and romantic story, in the best sense of the latter word. Goudge does not gloss over the difficulties, treacheries, and tragedies inherent in the best of families and the best of marriages. In fact The Heart of the Family makes those deep sorrows vividly clear, and I was reminded that there are many hurts and betrayals that are never completely healed this side of heaven. We fail one another abominably. But one can, with God’s grace and assistance, create a sort of a respite or a haven of home and family to help encourage the weak, cast down the proud, and heal the broken-hearted. I am always interested in the idea (and the ideal) of family and community and how to make those healing connections happen in our very imperfect and broken lives.

I do think the first two books of the trilogy are the best, with the third book trying to say too much with too little story. None of these books is filled with action: people go for walks and drives, have lovely philosophical and theological conversations, make decisions in the middle of the night, and visit each other in the day. They drink a lot of tea, of course, since this is set in merrie old England. Yet some how all the descriptive passages and the long conversational interludes work for the most part. However, I would warn readers that in the third book, The Heart of the Family, Ms. Goudge becomes a little too philosophical/mystical/esoteric for even my tastes. And I like all those things. Nevertheless, if I just kept reading, the story came back and the characters said and did interesting and thought-provoking things, and my own interest in the the novel was renewed.

I highly recommend this series of novels, as well as The Dean’s Watch, The Rosemary Tree, Green Dolphin Street, and Gentian Hill, all novels that I have read and enjoyed by this author. I do believe that this is my Year of Elizabeth Goudge, and I plan to read her children’s book, The Little White Horse, next. Elizabeth Goudge’s writing reminds me a little bit of Madeleine L’Engle’s adult novels, which is high praise for me since Ms. L’Engle is one of my favorites.

In case any of the rest of you want to go on a Goudge binge:
Another review of the trilogy at ShelfLove.
Review of Island Magic by Goudge at Worthwhile Books.
Review of I Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth GOudge (a Christmas story) at Worthwhile Books.
The Valley of Song, recommended at Charlotte’s Library.
Little White Horse, recommended by Amy at Hope Is the Word.
Janet at Across the Page on The Little White Horse.
The Scent of Water, reviewed by Janet at Across the Page.
The Dean’s Watch, also at Across the Page.

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The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge

The Dean’s Watch may very well be the best book I read this year. I can’t imagine any modern book outshining this lovely tale of the friendship between a cathedral dean and an atheist watchmaker.

Isaac Peabody, horologist and master craftsman, had any belief in God taken away from him early in life by his abusive clerical father. Dean Adam Ayscough holds a deep love for the people of the mid-nineteenth century town where he ministers, but he is unable to express his care for the community or for individuals because his shy, gruff manner and his deteriorating hearing separate him from the people he is called to pastor. When Dean Ayscough and clock and watchmaker Peabody meet and begin a tentative friendship, both men cannot predict that their short but rich time together will change an entire city as well as their own lives and legacies.

Elizabeth Goudge is a fine writer. Reading one of her novels takes a certain mood and patience since she was not, as far as I can tell, at all influenced by the press for unremitting action in novels that comes from our immersion in television and movies and the “hurry up and tell me what happened” attitude that can rule our reading nowadays. The Dean’s Watch moves slowly, inexorably toward a very satisfying conclusion, and I am impelled by the pace of the novel to slow down myself and savor every word.

I really think the best thing I can do to give you a taste of what I’m talking about is to, well, give you a taste.

Deceptively simple observations are one of Ms. Goudge’s specialties:

“The reasons for seclusion were many. One should find out why a man is alone before one lets him alone, for he may not want to be alone. This he had not done.”

“That sky was enough to make a man imagine anything, it was in itself so unbelievable.”

“The contemplation of sunsets and vegetable matter has its serene pleasure, and involves no personal exertion, but I think that is not what you want in your old age.”

“What harm unpurified and undisciplined human love could do. He believed it must pass through death before it could entirely bless.”

“Why do I demand certainty? That is not faith. Why do I want to understand? How can I understand this great web of sin and ugliness and love and suffering and joy and life and death when I don’t understand the little tangle of good and evil that is myself?”

Miss Montague is an elderly spinster, lame as a result of a childhood accident and never loved or cherished by her family as a child. But she finds a vocation as she expends herself in love for the people whom God has placed in her way:

“She never knew what put it into her head that she, unloved, should love. Religion for her parents, and therefore for their children, was not much more than a formality and it had not occurred to her to pray about her problem, and yet from somewhere the idea came. . . Could loving be a life’s work? Could it be a career like marriage or nursing the sick or going on stage? Could it be adventure?”

“So she took a vow to love. Millions before her had taken the same simple vow but she was different from the majority because she kept her vow, kept it even after she had discovered the cost of simplicity. Until now she had only read her Bible as a pious exercise, but now she read it as an engineer reads a blueprint and a traveler a map, unemotionally because she was not emotional, but with a profound concentration because her life depended on it.”

Isaac Peabody cannot believe in a fatherly God of love because he has only known a father who acted in cruelty and contempt. So Dean Ayscough tells him:

“Believe instead in Love. It is my faith that Love shaped the universe as you shape your clocks, delighting in creation. I believe that just as you wish to give me your clock in love, refusing payment, so God loves me and gave Himself for me. That is my faith. I cannot presume to force it upon you, I can only ask you in friendship to consider it.”

“Whatever had made the Dean take such a fancy to him, a cowardly, selfish, obstinate, ugly old fellow like him? He would never understand it. He took the piece of paper out of his pocket and looked at that too. Faith in God. God. A word he had always refused. But the Dean had said, put the word love in its place.”

And to top it all off, Dean Ayscough has a butler, Garland, who reminds me of Downton Abbey’s Carson, or perhaps The Dowager Countess’s Spratt, velly, velly British and dignified and protective. I highly recommend The Dean’s Watch, when you’re ready to slow down and enjoy the roses of thoughtful, unhurried prose and insight into the depths of the spiritual lives of a small cast of rather extraordinary quotidian characters.

Echoes of Eden by Jerram Barrs

All things were created by God, through Him and for His glory.

We have no ideas of own. We are not original creators, ex nihilo, but rather as C.S. Lewis put it, “sub-creators”, dependent on the work of others and even more on the work of God in His creation. All of our ideas and artistic endeavors are either approximations or distortions of the thoughts and the artistry of God: this includes Romantic poetry, Middle Earth and hobbits, rap music, Monet’s water lilies, ballet, and any other artistic works you might imagine or remember experiencing.

These are the basic ideas I got from reading Mr. Barrs’ excellent book on a Christian approach to the arts, particularly literature. Jerram Barrs is “the founder and resident scholar of the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he teaches apologetics and outreach as professor of Christianity and contemporary culture. He and his wife also served on staff at English L’Abri for many years.” The book begins with general principles for appreciating and evaluating art, and then goes on to deal specifically with five famous authors and their works: Shakespeare, Tolkien, C.s. Lewis, J.K. Rowling, and Jane Austen. If you are interested in approaching any or all of these authors’ works from a Christian literary perspective, Echoes of Eden will be quite helpful in focusing your attention on the important aspects of how these authors glorify God in their writing.

Careless People by Sarah Churchwell


Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby by Sarah Churchwell.

Essentially, this book focuses on the autumn of 1922 when F. Scott Fitzgerald was beginning to think about writing The Great Gatsby and when all of the reading public was fixated on the salacious details of the Hall-Mills murder case in New Jersey, a bizarre and celebrity-driven murder and investigation that played out in the newspapers and probably influenced Fitzgerald’s story of murder and infidelity in several aspects. Ms. Chruchwell also includes the before and after stories of how Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda came to be the celebrities that they were and of how Scott Fitzgerald finished writing his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, and even what happened to him and to Zelda after that novel was published.

I learned several facts that I didn’t know while reading this volume of history and literary criticism combined. F. Scott Fitzgerald was only twenty-six years old in 1922 when he began planning his novel, and only twenty-eight when it was published. Zelda was even younger, born in 1900, twenty-two years old in 1922. She was only nineteen when she married Fitzgerald in April, 1920.

Their daughter, Scottie, was about a year old when they decided to move to New York from St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m not sure how the baby survived, although they did hire a nurse to take care of her, since the parents seem to have been constantly and continually drunk throughout the entire time that they lived in New York. I also am not surprised that Fitzgerald didn’t get far beyond the planning stages in writing his Great American Novel; I am surprised that he was able to write a coherent sentence, much less a number of short stories and the seminal beginnings of what would become The Great Gatsby.

“In May 1924 the Fitzgeralds sailed for Europe, to put the temptations of the New World behind them, with the conviction that they had left their old selves behind forever.” The temptations accompanied them; they got drunk in France just as well and just as often as they did in New York; and their marriage began to disintegrate. But Fitzgerald did write his novel, set in 1922 and based on the characters and the adventures that he and Zelda experienced in New York in that memorable fall of 1922. In particular the Hall-Mills murder case became a part of The Great Gatsby, inextricably intertwined in the characters of Daisy and Tom and Nick and Jordan and Gatsby himself and in the ideas of romantic adultery and carelessness and mistaken identity, insoluble crimes and American idealism.

If you’re fascinated by the Jazz Age, Prohibition, flappers, Scott and Zelda, and The Great Gatsby, Careless People has some good factual material as well as speculation and philosophy about the era and the meaning of the history and the novel and their intersection. The author gets a little carried away at times with passages like the following, coming at the end of each section of the purportedly nonfiction prosaic tome:

“Life is always there waiting to be transfigured into a splendid fiction, however sad or sordid its origins. A story of adultery ends in the violent extinction of a woman of tremendous vitality. A dreamer keeps faith with the faithless, an a double shooting draws coder in the cooling twilight, as e writer tires to determine whether what he holds in his hand is the past, or the future.”

However, reading about Scott and Zelda did make me think about sin and its intractable hold on our lives, about how genius can transcend even the tragic and injurious decisions we make, sometimes, and about what the real meaning of The Great Gatsby is. Did Scott Fitzgerald understand the tragedy of his own novel? Did Zelda? Do I?

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy– they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Scott and Zelda were careless, too, and sort of rich, but there came a time, later, when the piper had to be paid, and the party was over, and both their lives ended tragically. I wonder how many “messes” the “golden boy” and his “first American flapper” left in their wake? If sound self-righteous and Pharasaical, I don’t mean to be. I also wonder how many messes I’ve left for others to clean up and how many more I might have run away from if I had been rich and able?

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Briefly Noted, Fiction

First Impressions by Charlie Lovett. The main character’s attitude toward casual sex (“bliss because she didn’t care what it meant”) was sad and made the entire book feel tawdry and cheap, in contrast to Jane Austen’s more elevated, intellectual, and thoughtful prose and her insightful approach to even flawed characters. Also some dropped plot points and discontinuities marred the otherwise serviceable story.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. Everyone and their dog recommends it. I found it fascinating, but mostly because I kept hoping that the protagonist, Theo, would learn something, or grow up, over the course of the novel. He sort of did? But not really. The book should come with a warning label: lots of drugs, lots of illicit (and boring) sex, and then lots more drugs and violence. Theo actually finds “somewhere safe with somebody good” after a traumatic and neglected childhood, but he’s too traumatized to enjoy and appreciate the one person who actually loves and cares for him, Hobie, the antique dealer and friend to the friendless. Theo is a mess, and the “happy ending” seems forced in light of Theo’s choices throughout the novel. I was reading Careless People about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing of The Great Gatsby after this one, and Gatsby and Fitzgerald both ended up about the way I would imagine someone who made the choices they did would end up. Theo, in contrast, gets to travel the world and make restitution on his own timetable. Lucky for him.

Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good by Jan Karon. Father Tim Kavanagh and his lovely wife Cynthia, not to mention Dooley and Sammy and Lace Turner and all the other inhabitants of Mitford, return in a safe but enjoyable novel that reads just like cozy, warm cup of tea with the reader curled up in a homey old quilt on a cold winter day. The questions in the novel—Will Father Tim come out of retirement in an emergency? Does Mitford still take care of its own? Will Sammy grow up and forgive and overcome his past?—were intriguing enough to keep me reading and comfortable enough make me smile as I did. It’s well worth your time if you’re a Mitford fan, and if you’re not, you should be. Start with At Home in Mitford, and you’ll be hooked.

I’ve been focusing on nonfiction this month, and I plan to continue to do so. However, I can’t resist slipping in a few novels, now and then. I’m especially interested in reading a really good historical fiction book set in the “roaring twenties” since I just finished the book about Scott and Zelda and the Great Gatsby, and I’m now reading a biography of Florence Harding aka “the Duchess”, wife of Warren G. Harding, who became president in 1920 and presided over the beginning at least of the Jazz Age. Suggestions, anyone?

Christmas in Port William, Kentucky, 1954

From Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry:

“The night of the Christmas dance was starless. A few snowflakes were floating down out of the dark sky into the aura of electric light in front of Riverwood. I was moved to see the snowflakes melting in Clydie’s hair as I helped her out of her coat. She was wearing a light green dress with a full skirt that set off her figure, and I reached around her waist and gave her a little hug.

We protested and paid and went past Mrs. Fitz’s table into the darker room. The band already was playing and couples were dancing. Mindful that we were older than most, we took a table a little off to itself and yet where we had a good view of the floor. For a while we just watched. The boys were wearing their good suits. The girls were in party dresses, all dolled up. It was a pretty thing to see them dancing. The room was lighted by rows of shaded electric candles along the walls, an imitation log fire in the fireplace, and (so far) by a few lamps overhead that cast a soft glow onto the dance floor. Everybody (including, of course, me) had brought a pint or a half-pint stuck away in his pocket or in his date’s purse.”

Something happens at the Christmas dance that changes Mr. Jayber Crow, Port William’s resident barber and inveterate bachelor. He sees something that changes the direction of his life–in an unusual way. He makes a vow, and he spends the remainder of the book living out the consequences of that vow.

“Maybe I had begun my journey drunk and ended it crazy. Probably I was not the one to say. But though I felt the whole world shaken underfoot, though I foresaw nothing and feared everything, I felt strangely steadied in my mind, strangely elated and quiet.
The sky had lightened a little by the time I reached the top of the Port William hill. It was Sunday morning again.”

Jayber Crow is one of the best books I’ve ever read by a very talented author.

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Christmas at Brede Abbey, Sussex, England, c. 1955

“On the night of Christmas Eve the abbey was so still it might have been thought to be empty, or the nuns asleep, but when the bell sounded at ten o’clock, from all corners, especially from the church, silent figures made their way to their station in the long cloister, and Abbess Catherine led them into choir for Christmas Matins. The first nocturne from the book of Isaiah was sung by the four chief chantresses: ‘Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned. A voice says ‘Cry!’ and I said ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flowers of the field. . . .’ Voice succeeded voice through two hours until the priests, vested in white and gold, with their servers, came in procession from the sacristy for the tenderness and triumph of the midnight Mass. Lauds of Christmas followed straight after, and at two o’clock the community went to the refectory for hot soup, always called ‘cock soup’ because it was the first taste of meat or chicken they had had since Advent began. The soup was served with rice–‘beautifully filling,’ said Hilary in content–and after it came two biscuits and four squares of chocolate. ‘Chocolate!’ ‘We need to keep our strength up,’ said Dame Ursula.

In the twenty-four hours of Christmas they would spend ten hours in choir, singing the Hours at their accustomed times, and the second ‘dawn’ or ‘aurora,’ Mass of the shepherds as well as the third Mass of Christmas, which came after terce. The wonder was that the nuns had time to eat their Christmas dinner, most of it contributed by friends.”

I picked up a beautiful paperback copy of In This House of Brede by Rumor Godden at Half-Price Books the other day. The blurb on the back calls the book “an extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life.” I have called it “an excellent story about the lives of women within a closed community of nuns. Not only does the reader get to satisfy his curiosity about how nuns live in a convent, but there’s also a a great plot related to contemporary issues such as abortion, the efficacy of prayer, and the morality of absolute obedience.”

I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in the disciplines of the Christian life or the difficulties and possibilities inherent in attempting to live in Christian community.

Blog reviews for In This House of Brede:
Laura at Lines in Pleasant Places.
Heather at Lines from the Page.
Phyllis at Life on Windy Ridge.
Diane at A Circle of Quiet.
Julie at Happy Catholic.

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Oscar Wilde, b.October 16, 1854, d.November 30, 1900

Facts about Oscar Wilde that you may not have known:
Oscar’s father, Sir William Wilde, was an ear and eye doctor, and his mother, Lady Jane Francesca Agnes Elgee Wilde, was a writer, poet, and translator.

Oscar was profoundly affected by the death of his younger sister when she was ten years old, and for his lifetime he carried a lock of her hair sealed in a decorated envelope.

Wilde had two older half-sisters who died in an accident when their gowns caught fire after a ball.

In 1876 Oscar had a brief romantic affair with a girl named Florence Balcome, who later married Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.

He and his wife Constance had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. (Really, Vyvyan?) Vyvyan later changed the spelling of his name to Vivian. (Who wouldn’t?) Except for the unfortunate name choice, Oscar was an attentive and loving father who spent lots of time with his sons.

When Wilde was arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for “gross indecency”, Constance attempted to protect her sons from the scandal. She took the children to Switzerland and took the old family name of Holland for herself and the boys.

Oscar mostly spent the last three years of his life (after prison) wandering Europe, staying with friends and living in cheap hotels. Sad but true.

Oscar Wilde quotes:
“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.”

“The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.”

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”

“A simile committing suicide is always a depressing spectacle.”

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”

“Everything popular is wrong.”

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.”

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

What have you read of Oscar Wilde’s work? His plays are delightfully funny and witty, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is quite insightful in its own way, as long as one takes almost anything the characters say or do and turns it upside down to do or believe the opposite.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The subject of Africa and Africans and the relationship of Africans to Americans is one of my fascinations. I read Ms. Adichie’s novel, Americanah, with that fascination firmly in place. But the book was just ironic, sarcastic, and insightful enough to make me a little uncomfortable. I don’t think I’d enjoy meeting the author, and I don’t think she would like me very much. (According to one character in the novel who may or may not speak for the author, “American conservatives come from an entirely different planet,” obviously not a good one.) I feel as if Ms. Adichie, assuming her characters speak for her in some respects, would have something sardonic and probably also uncomfortably perceptive to say about me and my interest in Africa and my WASP background and my conservative Christian worldview.

Through her main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, especially Ifemelu, the novelist has a lot to say about Nigerians and “Non-American Blacks” (NAB’s) and American Blacks (AB’s) and American Non-Blacks and Brits and other Europeans and poor people and rich people and bourgeois middle class people and everyone else whose weaknesses and foibles Ifemelu manages to expose and ridicule and deflate. Thought provoking, yes. But Ifemelu is also self-absorbed, sometimes pitiable, and irresponsible and unreliable. In short, she’s a real person with a sin problem, although she wouldn’t use that term.

Ifemelu is a Nigerian immigrant to the United States. She leaves Nigeria partly to escape from the lack of choices there and from her dysfunctional family and partly to study in the U.S., the land of opportunity. She finds that when she comes to America, she suddenly becomes “black”, a category she never considered one way or another back in Nigeria. She is subject to the racism, overt and subtle, that American Blacks encounter and deal with all of the time in this country. And she also becomes “African” in the eyes of many Americans, black and white, who tell her about their charitable contributions to an orphanage in Zimbabwe or their trip to Kenya or their love for Mother Africa, as if Africa were one big country, and of course, she would identify with people and entities half a continent away from her own nation and culture.

Ifemelu, however, is an honest and incisive thinker, and she forges her own identity in the U.S. She eventually becomes a blogger with a widely read and profitable blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. She writes about race in America, about black women and hair, about subtle and not-so subtle racism, about Michelle and Barack Obama, about her own experiences as an immigrant to the U.S., and about the people and interactions she observes. Her blog posts about race in particular prick the consciences and destroy the pretensions of many of her readers. (The unrealistic part, of course, is that she makes quite a bit of money as a result of the popularity of her blog. How many rich bloggers are there?)

Americanah is a smart, penetrating, rather dramatic look at the immigrant experience and at the emigrant experience and at the experience of returning home. But it made me feel the way I feel when I’m in the company of intellectual people who spend their time mocking and pointing out the defects of those who are “beneath” them, outside their little clique. Americanah is an opinionated book, and it’s not a kind book. The characters in the book are honest, possibly right about many of their opinions and insights, but not very compassionate or forgiving.

“What are you reading?” Kelsey turned to Ifemelu.
Ifemelu showed her the cover of the novel. She did not want to start a conversation. Especially not with Kelsey. She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was.
“Is it good?”
“Yes.”
“It’s a novel, right? What’s it about?”
Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing. Ifemelu disliked the question; She would have disliked it even if she did not feel, in addition to her depressed uncertainty, the beginning of a headache.

At the risk of being relegated to the realm of all the Kelseys of this country, despite my lack of “liberal” credentials, I will say that Americanah is about the Nigerian immigrant experience, both in the U.S. and Britain. It’s also about the issues and stresses of being a black woman in America, specifically in the Northeastern part of the U.S. And it’s a novel about romantic love, and lost love and recovered love. The ending, like the detail of the money-making blog, struck me as unrealistic and unlikely. But I did learn a lot along the way.

Warning: Self-absorption and sexual license abound in the novel, just as they do in the real lives of many, both Africans and Americans. That part of the novel is almost too realistic.

Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior

My mom, my sister and I read Ms. Prior’s literary memoir for our GED Family Book Club in November. Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University in Virginia. Her bio at the Liberty website says:

“She was raised in a strong Christian home and received Christ at a very early age. But it wasn’t until she was in her twenties that Dr. Prior was introduced to the concept of the Christian worldview. This was when her faith became real and she embraced the challenge of not only living biblically, but thinking biblically, too. Her life has never been the same.”

41nFjdCDnbL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_The memoir deals mostly with Ms. Prior’s growing up years, the years before “her faith became real.” She writes in each chapter about a particular author or work of literature and about how that literary work informed her thoughts and gave her food, real food, for spiritual and emotional growth. I liked how the author wove her own story through the stories she read and demonstrated the power of words and stories to change our lives, for better or for worse.

Ms. Prior starts with the premise that she takes from John Milton’s Areopagitica: “God uses the things of this earth to teach us and shape us, and to help us find truth.” (p.10) She paraphrases Milton, saying that “truth is stronger than falsehood; falsehood prevails through the suppression of countering ideas, but truth triumphs in a free and open exchange that allows truth to shine.” As Milton put it, “Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.” I tend to agree and have generally allowed myself and my children (within reason) to read whatever we thought might be of benefit to our minds and our education. I believe in this habit of “reading promiscuously” and believe it has been of more benefit than harm to me and to my children.

That’s not to say that reading with very few boundaries is not sometimes perilous, and scary for the parent in particular. Some ideas are dangerous and even evil. But I believe that Truth will prevail, as long as we are open to the truth. And it has been my experience that denying myself or my children access to certain books only makes us more curious and at the same time less prepared to encounter, apprehend, and interpret that idea that has been hidden and forbidden and made to seem alluring by its very proscription. Whereas discussion and reading and more discussion and reading and placing the ideas we read about in juxtaposition to God’s Word and then reading and talking some more—these are the best ways to learn and grow and become fully equipped for the battle of worldview and philosophy in which we are engaged.

So, that’s just the first chapter. This memoir is really a book full of ideas and things to think about (or write about). In the second chapter (Charlotte’s Web) Ms. Prior discusses the power of words:

“All words are names, for all words signify something.
The power of naming is a subset of the power of all language. God spoke the universe into existence and, in giving us the gift of language He gave us a lesser, but still magnificent, creative power in the ability to name: the power to communicate, to make order out of chaos, to tell stories, and to shape our own lives and the lives of others.
The Book of Proverbs says that death and life are in the power of words. To choose a good word, to assign the right name, to arrange proper words in the best order: these are no easy tasks.”

So true, and so reminiscent of not only Charlotte, the spider with a talent for choosing the right word, but also of Madeleine L’Engle and her emphasis on the power of naming. We are shaped by the names we give and are given. If I call myself (because God first called me) a child of God, I become a new creation indeed.

I could write a paragraph or a page or even, in some cases perhaps, a book of my own about each of the following quotes from Ms. Prior’s book, but I will simply leave them with you to ponder and perhaps one or all of these excerpts will tantalize and impel you to read the book yourself. (WARNING: Some of Ms. Prior’s life experiences, having to do with growing up during the sexual revolution of the seventies, before “her faith became real” are more appropriate for mature readers.)

“To respond emotionally to God directly is more than I can bear. So God in his goodness has bestowed the gift of literature.”

“Indeed, the only thing that stands between me–or anyone–and tragedy is grace.”

“Well, I believe in a God who not only intervenes in human affairs—again and again–but one who also makes banquets out of stale bread.”

“Life is grounded in the mundane. But the mundane has a bad rap. The word simply means ‘world'; its origins are shared with the same root word for ‘mountain.'”

“God is nothing if not a poet. And nothing if not elaborate in both his imagination and composition. Elaborate, as the root of the word suggests, means brought about by labor and care, planned with painstaking attention to details or intricate and rich in detail. Just like a metaphysical conceit. To join the unlike–a man and a woman, reason and passion, physical and spiritual—is the work of the poet and of God.”

The books and literary works that Karen Swallow Prior discusses in the book are:
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.
The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, especial the poem “Pied Beauty”.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller.
The metaphysical poetry of John Donne.
The poetry of Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy.

If you are a fan of any of the above, Ms. Prior’s very personal take on the meaning and application of these literary works to her own spiritual journey would be illuminating and engaging.