The Other Bennet Sister

If you are a Pride and Prejudice fan, you might remember middle sister Mary Bennet as being bookish and quiet. In fact, the only significant scene of hers I can recall is when she’s playing the piano at the Bingley ball (the one where all the Bennet family comes across as ridiculous in front of Mr. Darcy) to the point that her father has to pull her away with “You’ve entertained us enough for now.”

Janice Hadlow has crafted a novel from Mary’s point of view: The Other Bennet Sister. Hadlow delves more deeply into Mary’s character and what might have been after P&P ended.

The Bennets had five daughters. Mr. Bennets property is entailed, meaning it will go to a male cousin upon Mr. Bennet’s death rather than a Bennet daughter.

Even though the Bennets are landed gentry, there’s not enough money for any of the girls to have large enough dowries to attract the “right” kind of husband. But most of the girls are pretty enough to attract attention, and their ambitious mother is determined to place them where they can be seen and admired.

Mary, however, is plain. In Mrs. Bennet’s book, that’s almost a sin. At the very least, Mary’s plainness is a great disappointment to her mother. Mrs. Bennet is one of the most annoying characters in literature, and one of my least favorite. Mary’s mother not only has little use for Mary, she constantly berates her daughter. “She had learned from Mrs. Bennet that without beauty, no real and lasting happiness was attainable. It never occurred to her to question what she had been taught.” Mrs. Bennet didn’t even want Mary to get needed glasses because they would further hamper her ability to get a husband.

Since Mary doesn’t have the looks or personality to be “pleasing,” and she loves to learn, she sets herself to study in her father’s library. Perhaps at some point she can discuss books with him. But he demands absolute silence in the library—except when Lizzie, his favorite, is there.

Mary tries other venues, like music, in which to stake her significance, with poor results.

Mary is also in the very middle of the five sisters. The older two are close, as are the younger two, leaving Mary with no one. Lizzie and Jane are not unkind, but they don’t draw Mary in, either.

Since Mary feels invisible, she looks invisible as well, wearing very plain dresses with no color or frill.

The first part of the book covers the events of P&P, but from Mary’s point of view.

Then the book jumps ahead a couple of years. Mr. Bennet had died, and all the Bennet daughters are married except Mary. Mary and her mother go to live with Jane and Mr. Bingley. But the days there are dreary for Mary, with her mother’s constant harping and Caroline Bingley’s sniping remarks. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy for a while, then Charlotte (Elizabeth’s close friend) and Mr. Collins, the obsequious cousin who inherited the Bennet family home. Charlotte and Mary have several talks about life as a plain woman.

Single women did not have many options in those days. Spinsters were pitied and often poor, earning money as governesses or music teachers. Mary is not interested in either profession, but living with one of her sisters is not ideal, either.

Finally Mary goes to London to stay with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners—the same aunt and uncle Lizzie stayed with in P&P. Things start to turn a corner as Mrs. Gardiner gently draws Mary out and convinces her that it is not drawing undue attention to herself to dress nicely. And the Gardiner’s friend, Mr. Hayward, convinces Mary’s very rational mind that poetry and feeling are valuable.

I loved a lot of Mrs. Gardiner’s advice, some of which had a double meaning.

Sometimes the very best stuff can seem quite plain, until one examines it closely. It is only then that one sees its true quality.

I see plainly enough that you don’t like to make a fuss about dress—that you dislike having attention drawn to you. But there are times when the best way to ensure you are not remarkable is to conform to the expectations of those around you.

There is a middle way between an obsession with one’s appearance and an absolute denial of its importance.

It’s hard to persuade anyone, especially a man, that your regard is worth having if you have none for yourself.

In our house, no-one is obliged to sparkle. Which, I find, makes it far more likely that they might.

There were several things I liked about this novel. One is Mary’s slow “blossoming,” often with one step forward and two back as she makes mistakes.

I thought the author did an admirable job keeping the personality of each of Austen’s main characters close to what they were in P&P. Even though Hadlow’s style is different from Austen’s, the book still had a cozy Regency feel to it.

I had two minor complaints, though. One is that, especially in the beginning of the book, there was a lot more “telling” than “showing.” That improved after the story got into new material after the P&P timeline.

The other complaint is that sometimes there was too much explanation. The narrative would belabor a point long after the reader understood.

Those two aspects made the story drag just a little in places, but not enough to ruin the book.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story. I wanted to speed ahead to see how things worked out for Mary, but then I didn’t want it to end. Some parts of the book had me in tears.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Carla Mendonca.

Thanks to Lois for putting this book on my radar.

Book Review: Villette

Villette was the last book written by Charlotte Bronte (another was published posthumously but was actually her first book). I had only recently heard of Villette, but since Charlotte penned one of my top three novels, Jane Eyre, I thought I’d give it a try.

Villette is a semi-autobiographical novel based on parts of Charlotte’s life. She and her sister, Emily, had taught for a time in a boarding school in Brussels, Belgium. They both went back to England when their aunt died, and Charlotte returned to the boarding house alone. Villette is a fictional town in France, but based upon Brussels. By the time Charlotte started writing this novel, she was the only remaining sibling of the original five in her family, and she well captures that feeling of being all alone in the world.

The story’s heroine is Lucy Snowe. After some unexplained tragedy in her family, Lucy was left totally alone and needing to make her own way in the world. She heard that some French families hired English-speaking governesses for their children, so she took what money she had and went to France though she knew almost no French and no one in the country. She met a young English girl, Ginevra, on the ship, who went to a French boarding school. After getting lost in Villette, Lucy found herself on the doorstep of the same boarding school run by a Madame Beck. Lucy begged for a job doing anything at the school. She was hired to take care of Madame Beck’s children, but eventually she was asked to teach English at the school.

Lucy on the outside seemed like a quiet, almost mousy person (someone called her a shadow), but inside her feelings ran deep. Charlotte named her Snowe on purpose (she was originally going to go with Frost) to portray how she seemed to other people.

In addition to the ups and downs at the school and encounters with the spoiled Ginevra, Lucy came across her godmother and his son in town, who, unknown to her, had moved to Villette. The son was a teenager at the beginning of the book but became a doctor. Later Lucy encountered a father and daughter she had also met at the beginning, and had several run-ins with an abrasive fellow teacher, M. Paul Emanuel.

One article I read said “Everyone loves Paul Emanuel.” I did not. He constantly criticized Lucy and tended to dominate, not letting her leave for lunch when he wanted to talk to her, locking her up in the attic to learn lines for a school play he was directing. Later he is shown to have several redeeming qualities, but I never got over the initial dislike.

Since France was primarily a Catholic country Lucy stood out as one of the few Protestants. M. Emanuel and a priest took it upon themselves to try to convert her, but Lucy stood firm. Lucy had no use for Catholicism (” the CHURCH strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning”), but came to believe that “there are good Romanists.” She and M. Emanuel eventually came to an understanding that they both trusted in “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and they left each other’s religious affiliations alone after that. The priest, however, thwarted some of her interests later.

Though there are several aspects to the story, it’s primarily a psychological drama of sorts with Lucy’s highs and lows, known mostly just to herself. There are comic moments in Lucy’s asides to herself, especially in her conversations with Ginevra. But Lucy gets so low at one point, when she is left alone at the school during a long break with a mentally disabled student and then falls ill, that she has a breakdown. One passage that’s characteristic is Lucy’s encouraging of herself:

Courage, Lucy Snowe! With self-denial and economy now, and steady exertion by-and-by, an object in life need not fail you. Venture not to complain that such an object is too selfish, too limited, and lacks interest; be content to labour for independence until you have proved, by winning that prize, your right to look higher. But afterwards, is there nothing more for me in life—no true home—nothing to be dearer to me than myself, and by its paramount preciousness, to draw from me better things than I care to culture for myself only? Nothing, at whose feet I can willingly lay down the whole burden of human egotism, and gloriously take up the nobler charge of labouring and living for others? I suppose, Lucy Snowe, the orb of your life is not to be so rounded: for you, the crescent-phase must suffice. Very good. I see a huge mass of my fellow-creatures in no better circumstances. I see that a great many men, and more women, hold their span of life on conditions of denial and privation. I find no reason why I should be of the few favoured. I believe in some blending of hope and sunshine sweetening the worst lots. I believe that this life is not all; neither the beginning nor the end. I believe while I tremble; I trust while I weep.

Some article I read herald the novel’s “feminism” and Lucy’s independence, but here she shows a longing for a “true home,” someone “dearer to me than myself.” I read that she wanted to write a sad and unfulfilled ending, but her father (and I think perhaps others) urged a conventional happier one. The ending is a little ambiguous, so readers can interpret it whichever way they like.

There are several parallels between Villette and Jane Eyre. Both protagonists are women alone; neither would be considered beautiful; each has a rather unconventional romance with an unlikely suitor. There is even a bit of gothic mystery in both: Jane’s Mr. Rochester is found to have a mad wife locked up in an unused part of the house; Villette’s boarding school has a legend of a dead nun who haunts the place, which Lucy encounters a couple of times (though later a logical explanation is found for the appearances).

One downside to Villette is that much of the conversation is written in French with no translation. That posed a problem for me to listen to the audiobook since I know almost no French. Thankfully I found an annotated copy of the novel at the library with translations and other notes, but it was disjointing to have to look up passages later after reading them.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Davina Porter. Though I enjoyed the novel, Jane Eyre is still my favorite Bronte work.

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


Book Review: The Austen Escape

Austen Escape The Austen Escape by Katherine Reay finds lifelong friends going on vacation to a manor in Bath, England, for a Jane Austen-themed experience. Mary Davies, from whose point of view the story is told, is an engineer, not a Romantic. In fact, all her mother’s Austen books were given to her friend, Isabel Dwyer, who is lively, vivacious, and well-versed in all things Austen. Isabel has some sharp edges, though, and the two friends have been somewhat on the outs for a time. But Isabel begs/drags/insists that Mary go, and as so often happen, Mary concedes.

While at this Austen experience, guests are to choose a character from one of Austen’s books to portray and to dress in Regency outfits provided by the manor. There are a few rough spots until Isabel has some sort of mental issue, forgets who she is, and believes she really is the character she’s portraying.  She’s actually much easier to get along with, though, and some things come out that help Mary put together some of the issues that they’ve had. On the other hand, other issues concerning the guy Mary is interested in come out as well, leaving her feeling betrayed.

My thoughts:

The lost memory issue is mentioned on the back of the book, and I wondered how the author was going to pull that off when it seems likely someone in that condition would be taken to the hospital immediately. But the explanation for why they stay on at the manor seemed plausible. I also had a hard time figuring Isabel out when some times she seemed like Mary’s best-ever friend, and other times she seemed condescending and even haughty. I thought perhaps the back-and-forth was going to be a precursor or related to whatever caused the memory loss. That did not turn out to be the case, at least not directly, but it was explained eventually.

I have read all of Reay’s books and enjoyed them to varying degrees, but I have to confess, this is not a favorite. The premise sounded fun – how great would it be to actually go on an Austen-themed vacation like this?! And all of Reay’s books have a plethora of literary allusions, fun for any reader of classics. Obviously the ones this time were all connected to Austen books.

Two themes in the book have to do with various ways people “escape,” and with vision – lack of seeing things clearly, etc.

But the writing this time just seemed — maybe a little uneven to me. I don’t know quite how to put my finger on it. I didn’t “get” a key factor until the discussion questions after the book, which was probably my own fault.

And then, Reay’s first book was definitely in the Christian or at least inspirational fiction category, but it seems her later books get further away from that category. I don’t recall anything relating at all to Christianity or faith in this book, though it’s possible it’s there and I have forgotten it. But if it’s there, it’s small. Maybe this is meant as a general fiction or romance, I am not sure. There was a comment between Mary and her boyfriend about her chest that totally didn’t need to be there – though it was mild compared to secular standards. And there was a fair bit of alcohol consumption – I know there are Christians with varying degrees of conviction about this issue, and I know alcohol was consumed in the Austen books, but it just seemed like that element was detrimental to me personally.

But all in all it’s an enjoyable story, especially as things come together in the end, and as the discussion questions pulled more of the story together for me.

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

Book Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

My thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laudable Linkage

I found quite a bit of good reading the last couple of weeks. Hope something here piques your interest:

Grace Incognito. “What if the point isn’t sprinting across the finish line in record time, but knowing God in every halting, baby step along the way?”

Grace-paced Living in a Burnout Culture. The “Mrs. Grace” illustrations were probably the best I’ve seen showing what life lived with an overflow of God’s grace to us is looks like.

What Should Be One of My Chief Aims at Church?

3 Ways Understanding Jesus’s Cultural Context Helps Me.

Here’s How I’m Fighting the Lies of Self-pity.

19 Spurgeon Quotes for Coping With Stress and Anxiety.

When the Doctor Says to Terminate.

Children and Sleep-overs: What Parents Need to Know.

Master Your Time: 5 Daily Scheduling Methods to Bring More Focus to Your Day, HT to Challies.

The Things All Women Do That You Don’t Know About, HT to Lisa. Sad, but true. (Warning: a bit of bad language).

Here’s What Goodwill Actually Does With Your Donated Clothing.

5 Reasons You Need Fiction, HT to Lisa.

Did you know they were making a new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast? With Dan Stevens (Matthew on Downton Abbey) as the Beast? Here are some photos from it, HT to Carrie. This is one of my favorite fairy tales and the Disney film one of my favorite Disney movies. I hope they do this well and don’t toss in anything objectionable. Looks good so far.

And finally, my oldest son posted this video called “Unsatisfying,” and right at first I thought it was frustrating, but before long I was laughing. Some of the little touches, like the squeaky windmill, are great and the soundtrack, though I love the piece (Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings), is perfect.

Happy Saturday!

Book Review: The Swan House

Swan HouseI picked up The Swan House by Elizabeth Musser when it came through as a Kindle deal because I liked her Words Unspoken so much (in fact, it was one of my top ten books from 2010.)

This story is told from the vantage point of 16-year-old Mary Swan Middleton, daughter of a wealthy Atlanta family in the 1960s. Tragedy strikes early in the book as her mother dies in an airplane accident along with a number of other Atlantans. The accident wounds her family and community deeply.

There are a number of threads in this book which Elizabeth weaves together nicely:

– Mary’s family and community dealing with their grief

– Mary’s (or Swan, as she’s called most often, or Swannee) quest to determine what happened to some missing paintings, one of them her mother’s, which were lost before they were to be debuted at the High Museum of Art

– Her black maid, Ella Mae, inviting her to come to her church to help with the weekly food distribution to the needy as a way to take her mind off her grief, where her eyes are opened to a whole different world and where she meets Miss Abigail, a white lady who has made it her mission to live and minister in the area.

– Her getting to know and becoming interested in a black teenage boy named Carl.

– The volatile racial tensions 0f the 1960s South and burgeoning civil rights movement

– Mary’s discovering clues that what was thought to be her mother’s artistic temperament might have been something deeper, something worse.

– Mary’s school life and activities, best friend Rachel, and budding interest in a boy named Robbie

– Mary’s spiritual development and crisis of faith.

In a sense it’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a book of rich depths. One of its themes is that there is often more going on behind the surface of a person’s life that we’re aware of.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

We were transported by that music in a ethereal way that later we would try to explain and couldn’t. But it was the first time I really felt what I had long understood: that something could be extremely beautiful and intensely painful at the same time.

She thought every church should be…a place where you could go without no makeup or fancy dress to hide behind and you could jus’ hug yore friends and cry and tell the Lawd how bad you’d messed up and ask Him to forgive ya and let ya git up and keep goin’.

It’s been through the hard times that I been able to he’p someone else. It’s been through believin’ that the Lawd somehow gonna git me through that the others done wanted to hear about my Jesus.

Guess I ain’t got no business tellin’ the good Lawd that He put me in the wrong place. He done shown me ’nuff times that He knows exactly what He is doing.

I mentioned in Why Read Christian Fiction that you would expect to find Christian conversations in Christian fiction but that some authors make it more subtle or only mention Christian truths in an offhand way so as not to be accused of being too heavy-handed with it. While some stories would call for subtlety, I am glad Elizabeth felt the freedom to have her characters have full-fledged conversations about what it means to really be a Christian and how Christianity should impact a life.

Elizabeth is a native Atlantan, and I enjoyed her afterword where she explained that many points of the story came from real life (even the airplane crash was a real one that impacted the Atlanta community). We lived just outside Atlanta for four years, and even though we didn’t go into the city that much, I felt like I was not only revisiting it but getting to know it better while reading this book.

I also enjoyed reading a little more about Elizabeth after reading this book. She and her family are missionaries in France, and she writes in a refurbished tool shed. She tells some of her writing journey here and photos of her writing place are here. I was exciting to see on Goodreads that this book “was named one of Amazon’s Top Christian Books of the Year and one of Georgia’s Top Ten Novels of the Past 100 Years.”

I enjoyed Words Unspoken so much, I am not sure why I waited so long to read another of Elizabeth’s books. But now that I have, I am looking forward to reading more of them.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Why Read? Why Read Fiction? Why Read Christian Fiction?

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I have been reading Christian fiction for some 35 years or so, and for the most part have loved it. It has ministered to me in many ways. I always wince a bit when I hear someone “slam” it. Especially when they say “All Christian fiction is…” whatever it is they don’t like about it. My snarky(and probably fleshly) inward response is “You haven’t read all of it.” 🙂

I’m probably not going to convince anyone who is dead set against it, and that’s fine. We can still be friends. 🙂 But I wanted to share why I find it valuable, and to do that, it seems to me I need to start with reasons to read anything in the first place, and then reasons to read fiction, and then Christian fiction.

Why Read?

God chose to communicate to us through words. He created the world by speaking. His Son is called “the Word.” The Bible contains a number of different genres (poetry, history, letters, narrative, forensics).

To gain information

To learn – about other people’s experiences, other points of view, any of the many things we don’t know yet or know as much as there is to know

To understand how things work

To understand how others feel and develop empathy.

To gain perspective

To gain wisdom

To broaden horizons. There are places you’ll likely never go, experiences you’ll likely never have, except by reading about them. On the other hand, something you read may spark an interest in a new venture.

To understand your own culture better

To understand other cultures

To strengthen your views

To know you are not alone in your views.

To test your own beliefs against others

To understand others’ views

To improve reasoning skills

To find others who express thoughts you’ve had but couldn’t quite put into words

To improve concentration and focus

To improve vocabulary and communication skills

To relax

To be amused

To be challenged

To profitably pass time

To be surprised

To stave off boredom

To be inspired

To become a more well-rounded person

To become more creative

To immerse oneself in a subject. Randy Alcorn wrote at the end of Courageous that they wanted to write a full book after the movie partly so that people could spend 10 hours in a book thinking over the topics involved rather than just 2 hours of a film.

For enjoyment and pleasure

To understand cultural references so that when someone quotes Dickens or Frost or Shakespeare you have some idea who they’re talking about. If someone mentions “Two roads diverged….,” knowing the poem and its subject enriches your understanding of what the person is referring to.

To have a point of contact with one’s fellow man or woman. A friend’s son was planning to go into a vocational job working with his hands and struggled with literature classes. She felt that her son’s time and mental powers would be better employed just reading and studying the Bible. But even the apostle Paul quoted poets and took time to understand other people’s culture as a way of understanding them as a people and having a point of reference from which to share the gospel (Titus 1:11-13, Acts 17:21-23).

To inspire “noble action.”

“All literature, all philosophy, all history, all abounds with incentives to noble action which would be buried in black darkness were the light of the written word not flashed upon them.” – Cicero, Pro Archia

“I believe stories can broaden our empathy, helping us to love. They tell us we’re not alone. But they can also give us something to live up to, whetting our appetite for virtues we don’t yet have.” James D. Witmer, Stories That Lead By Example

To think. I found it interesting that a daughter of a friend teaching English and American culture in a Communist country said that parents there did not read books to their children for pleasure.

“Books are weapons in the war of ideas.” – U.S. Government Printing Office, Office of War Information, S. Broder (artist) 1942 World War II Poster. In totalitarian societies, books that disagree with national policy are banned.

“The books that help you most are those which make you think the most. The hardest way of learning is that of easy reading; but a great book that comes from a great thinker is a ship of thought, deep freighted with truth and beauty.” Theodore Parker (1810 – 1860) (seen at Carrie’s)

To glean from the minds of great thinkers.

“The reading of all good books is indeed like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.” Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) (seen at Carrie’s).

To comprehend right and wrong

“The great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong, or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds.” Vigen Guroian, Tending the Heart of Virtue

To gain power. Thanks to Janet for this one. She shared that

“In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass writes that his owner forbade his wife to teach a slave to read on the grounds that it would ‘forever unfit him to be a slave.’ ‘I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man,’ writes Douglass. ‘It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom… I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read.’”

Why Read Fiction?

You may agree with all the reasons listed so far for reading, but you want to read what’s “real” and have no room for fiction in your life. Here are some things to think about regarding reading fiction. I believe all of the above reasons apply to fiction as well as non-fiction, but here are some that apply primarily to fiction:

God employed fiction in the Bible (Nathan to David, parables in the NT, story of the bramble in the OT, plus many others). We have to be careful not to fictionalize or label as myth what the Bible indicates as fact – as someone once said of Bible interpretation, “Where common sense makes good sense don’t seek any other sense.” Some people want to categorize much of the Old Testament as myth, and that is going way too far for too many reasons to go into here. But God does make use of stories.

God created imagination and stories employ it.

A story might provide conviction and instruction when we see ourselves in the story (Nathan to David in the story about a lamb, Aesop’s fables). A lecture or direct confrontation is not always the best approach. In It Takes a Pirate to Raise a Child by Daniel B. Coupland, he tells of a time when he was trying to get across to his young son why the way he was acting towards his sisters was wrong. The son did not comprehend or agree with what his father was saying until he said, “You’re acting like Edmund” in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. Then he “got it” and not only realized where he was wrong, but “The reference to Edmund hit my son in a very deep place in his heart, which only stories can reach.”

Fiction fleshes out truth. Sometimes during a sermon I am following along and understanding but find myself wondering what that truth looks like in real life. A story or illustration helps us know how to apply truth or helps us understand the truth better.

Fiction appeals to our minds. Somehow most of us are wired to tune in to a story. I read one preacher who lamented that his listeners got drowsy while he exposited Scripture but perked up when he told a story. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are unspiritual and shallow. I have often fought sleepiness during a message I really wanted to hear but then found myself wide awake when the preacher began to tell a story. That’s not to say preachers should tell more stories than preach the Bible – we do need to discipline ourselves to hear sound doctrine. But it is not always due to laziness that are minds are attracted to stories.

Here are what greater minds than mine have said about fiction:

“The appeal of stories is universal, and all of us are incessant storytellers during the course of a typical day.” Justin Taylor, How Stories Work

“Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuctu.” ~Mario Vargas Llosa, Seen at Semicolon

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. As by the one, health is preserved, strengthened and invigorated; by the other, virtue (which is the health of the mind) is kept alive, cherished and confirmed. But as exercise becomes tedious and painful when we make use of it only as the means of health, so reading is apt to grow uneasy and burdensome, when we apply ourselves to it only for our improvement in virtue. For this reason, the virtue which we gather from a fable, or an allegory, is like the health we get by hunting; as we are engaged in an agreeable pursuit that draws us on with pleasure, and makes us insensible of the fatigues that accompany it.” -Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, The Tatler No. 147

“Stories give children the opportunity to think about morals, lessons, and conflict resolution. With practice, children begin to search for the moral at the end of the story, and some will even structure their own stories around a specific message. Children who listen and tell many stories begin to recognize trends in human behavior. Their perspectives expand, and they become more critical, observant thinkers. They begin to consider in broader terms what it means to be helpful, mean, practical, hopeful, spiteful or considerate. Creating characters – which teaches that multiple perspectives exist at every moment – gives children invaluable tool for understanding others and for finding their way in the world.” (page 13)  Show Me a Story: 40 Craft Projects and Activities to Spark Children’s Storytelling, HT to Carrie.

“Some Christians view fiction as the opposite of truth.  But sometimes it opens eyes to the truth more effectively than nonfiction.” – Randy Alcorn, seen here.

“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language” ― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

“Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” – G.K. Chesterton

“It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back into our daily lives unsettled and discontent. I do not find that it does so….Story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous [speaking here of The Wind in the Willows] sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual” –C. S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. 14

Since it is so likely [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.C. S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. 39

“The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the ‘veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book [LOTR] applies the treatment not only to bread and apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly.” – C. S. Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, p. 90

Fairy Tales

Why Read Christian Fiction?

In addition to all of the above reasons for reading, which I believe can be applied to Christian fiction as well, here are some reasons particular to Christian fiction:

The missing element. Even the best of secular stories tends to leave God out of the picture and have the characters acting on their own initiative. Christian fiction shows how a Christian might act in dependence on God in some of these scenarios.

To see how Christians act in everyday life. I’ve mentioned here before that my mother was not, as far as I know, a Christian as I was growing up. In her later years she had some questions and concerns about it, but she did not want to discuss it. It was too sensitive, too personal for her to open up about it. I began sending her some of the Christian fiction I was reading. Not only did she enjoy the stories (Terri Blackstock and Dee Henderson were a couple of her favorites), but it helped her to see what Christianity in action looked like (we lived 1,000 miles away, so though we talked and wrote, we didn’t have that everyday life contact back when there was no texting or Facebook to keep in touch every day).

To display the gospel. I don’t think every Christian story has to include the plan of salvation or show a conversion, but if the gospel affects every aspect of our lives, that would be displayed in the stories in some way. I went into this further in an earlier post titled The Gospel and Christian Fiction. To repeat one thought from that post, while not every Christian story needs to explain the whole gospel, what it does share needs to be accurate. Because some have accused Christian fiction of being too “preachy” (more on that later), the pendulum has swung the other way lately, and some authors have tried to make their message a little more subtle. That can be fine: some stories would call for the book’s message to be a little more explicit, some call for more subtlety. But in some cases subtlety has generated obscurity or even misleading statements. I would not have sent those kinds to my mom so as not to confuse her, though a mature Christian might benefit from them.

To learn spiritual truth.

To be helped in your own life by another’s example. Just one instance of this in my life: for several years of our married life, my husband had to travel quite a bit, and I was often discouraged about it. During one of those periods I was reading Janette Oke’s A Quiet Strength, and the young wife in the story was experiencing something similar with her husband having to be away much of the time to work. Even though our ages, life situations, time in history, and number of years married was different, I was still encouraged by what she found that encouraged herself.

It’s clean – or should be. There is a growing trend to use bad language or sexual scenes to be more “realistic,” but I think explicitness in either vein is detrimental. I wrote about these elements in The Language of Christians and Sexuality in Christian Fiction, so I won’t reproduce those thoughts here.

Charges against Christian fiction:

Here are some complaints about Christian fiction that I have heard or read:

“It is predictable.” The person who is not a Christian becomes one or the problem a Christian has is solved or the lesson learned. But isn’t there a measure of predictability in every genre? Usually the guy and the girl get together in a romance, the detective figures out the mystery and “whodunnit,” the good guys win in the Western, the doctor helps save the patient, etc. (unless it is a series, and then a few lost cases are thrown in for realism). We expect a certain ending with most of the books we read, and the fun is in seeing how it is done and what unexpected twists and turns arise on the journey.

“It’s too preachy” or it is more of a sermon in the guise of a story. I’ve only found that occasionally. Of course authors, Christian or secular, usually do have some kind of truth they are trying to convey, but usually they try not to be blatant about it. Sometimes they are accused of being blatant when they are not: in C. S. Lewis’s book On Stories, he quotes Dorothy L. Sayers as saying, about the assumption that she wrote to “do good”: “My object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, within the medium at my disposal — in short, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not good and true in any other respect” (p. 93). An author’s worldview is going to seep out into his story in some way. Lewis said that the Narnia stories were not intended as an allegory. They started with a couple of pictures in his mind, one of a faun, and some “supposings,” and developed from there.

I mentioned earlier that Christian fiction will show the everyday activity of Christians, so obviously there will possibly be prayer, reading and discussing Biblical truths, going to church, etc., in the story. But those elements should be woven in as naturally as possible and not just tossed in to label a character as Christian. One of the best at this is Jan Karon in her Mitford books, which are not even marketed as Christian fiction but convey a definite element of faith.

“The characters are too perfect.” I have rarely found this to be the case in the Christian fiction I have read. Most writers strive to make their characters realistically flawed.

“It’s poorly written.” I have only a handful of times found a Christian fiction book that I thought was truly terrible. There are some Christian novels that are mediocre, but, again, that could be said of any genre. I have found plenty of Christian fiction that has kept me glued to the page, instructed or inspired me, and some that had me looking up at the ceiling thinking, “I wish I could write like that.”

“As soon as someone becomes a Christian in the book, all of their problems are solved and they live happily ever after.” Again, I have rarely found that to be the case in the Christian fiction I have read, especially in recent years.

I think some of these charges might have been more true of some of the earliest Christian fiction, but most authors I have read over the last 25+ years have striven to make their characters and plots and realistic as possible.

If someone truly feels convicted that they should not read Christian fiction, of course one shouldn’t violate conscience. I have mentioned missionary Isobel Kuhn many times. For a time she came to a place of laying aside fiction because one time, after finishing a very exciting novel, she tried to read her Bible and couldn’t engage with what she was reading. She felt the Lord was telling her that trying to read the Bible after a novel was like trying to eat dinner after ice cream. She felt the fiction was stunting her taste for the Bible (I don’t know what kind of fiction it was). To that I would say, as parents the world over have, don’t eat your dessert before your main course. 🙂 Make sure to put Bible reading before any other reading. Probably that same kind of thing would happen if trying to read the Bible just after an exciting ball game or social gathering or play: it takes a bit of time to “change gears.” But I wouldn’t argue with someone who felt this way: sometimes God does call us to put aside things that aren’t harmful in themselves in order to give first place to the best things. Later on when Isobel’s husband became a superintendent for their mission and had to travel frequently, and she was left alone in lonely mountain villages for long periods of time, she did come back to the classics for moments of respite and company. She felt like she was visiting with old friends, and because she was familiar with them, she didn’t have the temptation to neglect duties to stay glued to the book to see what happened.

I am not saying Christians should only read Christian books – not at all. One good post I’ve seen on that subject is Three Reasons to Diversify Your Reading.

I am also not endorsing all Christian fiction. Just as I wince when someone says they think it is all bad, I would also wince to hear someone say it is all good. We need to use discernment in everything we read. I have found some Christian fiction that I did feel was either poorly written or was off-base in something it said, but those have been the minority.

Conventional blogging wisdom would suggest that I divide this up into several posts – but personally I like having it all in one place even though it makes for too long a post. I hope you don’t mind. I also have a few more quotes I was going to share about books and reading, but I think I will save those for another time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about reading fiction and Christian fiction.

“Every great story tells in some part The Great Story. Each truth revealed helps us make sense of our world. And through each tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale, the Truth is woven through the fabric of our being.” – Julie Silander, Threads

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: On Stories and Other Essays on Literature

On StoriesSomeone recommended On Stories and Other Essays on Literature by C. S. Lewis some time last year. I asked for and received it for Christmas, but then set it aside when I entered a number of reading challenges for this year. But something in How to Read Slowly touched off a train of thought that reminded me of Lewis’s book, so I was happy to pick it up recently. Then realizing it could qualify for Carrie’s Narnia Reading Challenge for July made me push a little harder to try to get through it by the end of the month.

Nineteen of Lewis’s essays were compiled for this book by Walter Hooper, one of his biographers, his private secretary for a time, and eventually the literary executor of his estate. The last selection in the book is a transcript of a discussion recorded with Lewis and two colleagues. Many of the essays were previously published in magazines or in Lewis’s books: others had been unpublished until this book. Some are Lewis’s thoughts on fiction, science fiction, writing for children, etc., while others are critiques of other writers’ work (Dorothy L. Sayers, Rider Haggard, George Orwell, Tolkien, and others).

There is no way to really review a book like this, so I am just going to share some observations.

I hadn’t known and was fascinated to learn in Hooper’s mini-biography which introduces the book that in Lewis’s time “the most vocal of the literary critics were encouraging readers to find in literature almost everything, life’s monotony, social injustice, sympathy with the downtrodden poor, drudgery, cynicism, and distaste: everything except enjoyment. Step out of line and you were branded an ‘escapist'” (p ix). I’m glad Lewis not only stepped out of the box but succeeded and made it okay to enjoy stories as stories.

Lewis states many times in various essays that he did not write the Narnia series or his science fiction trilogy with morals or symbolism in view, as many people in his time and since have thought. They started with certain pictures in his mind (a faun carrying an umbrella) and developed from there. “Never…did he begin with a message or moral, but…these things pushed their own way in during the process of writing” (p. xv). He says in the transcript at the end, “The story itself should force its moral on you. You find out what the moral is by writing the story” (p. 145).

Reepicheep and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle were his favorite characters (p. xi).

He decried the kind of fiction where “the author has no expedient for keeping the story on the move except that of putting his hero into violent danger. In the hurry and scurry of his escapes the poetry of the basic idea is lost” (p. 10). Of course he had no problem with putting the hero in danger, as you know if you’ve read Narnia or the Space Trilogy: sometimes that’s a necessary part of the plot. But if that’s all the story is, it might be enjoyable to some, but there’s no deeper meaning.

He also believed that the “marvels in a good Story” should not be “mere arbitrary fictions stuck on to make the narrative more sensational” (p. 12). In other words, the story itself should be intrinsic to the “world” in the story. A story about pirates should  have a different feel and problems than a story about giants and dragons. The plot shouldn’t be such that it could be stuck into any setting.

He quotes Dorothy L. Sayers as saying, about the assumption that she wrote to “do good”: “My object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, within the medium at my disposal — in short, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not good and true in any other respect” (p. 93).

When asked what he thought of a certain book, he replied, “I thought it was pretty good. I only read it once; mind you, a book’s no good to me until I’ve read it two or three times” (p. 146).

I found his thoughts on critiques and book reviews quite interesting in “On Criticism” and in his answering of some criticisms of his work in “On Science Fiction.” Then to see/read him “in action” critiquing other books was enlightening. He didn’t pull any punches, but he wasn’t mean or belittling, and he complimented and praised the good while sharing honestly what he thought was bad. He made a strong case for truly evaluating what was good and bad and not deeming a book bad just because one doesn’t like a particular genre.

He thought The Lord of the Rings would “soon take its place among the indispensables” (p. 90). He was right. 🙂

I didn’t look up every word I didn’t know in this book, but I should have, especially with a dictionary app at hand on my phone. I eventually started doing so partway through the book.

Though Lewis has such a wealth of knowledge, I found him very readable and not hard to follow for the most part. I’d love to have sat in on one of his classes.

And here are some of my favorite quotes:

“It might be expected that such a book would unfit us for the harshness of reality and send us back into our daily lives unsettled and discontent. I do not find that it does so….Story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous [speaking here of The Wind in the Willows] sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual” (p. 14).

“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” (p. 14).

On the topic of frightening elements in children’s literature, he agreed that “we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless,” but to withhold “the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil…would be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce haunting dread in the minds of children…Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book…I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable” (pp. 39-40) (emphasis mine).

On The Lord of the Rings: “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; this is a book that will break your heart” (p. 84).

“‘But why,’ some ask, ‘why, if you have a serious comment to make on the real life of men, must you do it by talking about a phantasmagoric never-never land of your own?’ Because, I take it, one of the main things the author wants to say is that the real life of men is that of mythical and heroic quality” (p. 89).

“The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the ‘veil of familiarity.’ The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savory for having been dipped in a story…If you are tired of the real landscape, look at it in a mirror. By putting bread, gold, horse,apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves. This book [LOTR] applies the treatment not only to bread and apple but to good and evil, to our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys. By dipping them in myth we see them more clearly” (p. 90).

I love that – that by seeing truth in stories we sometimes see it more clearly than we otherwise would have.

If you like Lewis or like literature, I highly recommend this book to you.

Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Laudable Linkage

Here are some noteworthy reads from the last few weeks:

Why You Can Trust Your Bible despite differences in texts.

The Amalekite Genocide. God’s command to wipe out the Amalekites is used as ammunition against Christianity by atheists and is troublesome to Christians. Here is a thoughtful article about God’s possible reasons for it.

Where does brokenness drive you? I pondered this for a long time after reading it. It’s kind of popular in blogging right now to expose our failings in the name of transparency and lean heavily on grace, and that’s not wrong. I think perhaps it started as a reaction against appearing to have too picture-perfect a life to readers. But do we sometimes wallow in our failures and presume upon grace? We are all broken in some respects, and grace provides for blessed forgiveness, but it doesn’t stop there.

Indispensable. No one is. Beautiful.

21 Spiritual Things to Pray for Other Christians. It’s easy to pray for physical needs, but we sometimes neglect these spiritual needs.

Dear Disillusioned Christian Girl.

Stories That Lead By Example. Sometimes a story explains things better than an explanation. “I believe stories can broaden our empathy, helping us to love. They tell us we’re not alone. But they can also give us something to live up to, whetting our appetite for virtues we don’t yet have.”

To Moms of One or Two Children. Feeling overwhelmed and finding God’s grace sufficient no matter how many you have.

Richard Baxter on Educating Children.

Three Things You Don’t Know About Your Children and Sex. They probably know more than you think they do, and from dangerous sources. This is not a new problem, but the Internet exponentially increases the availability of unwholesome sources of information.

Are we doing the Lord’s work? Questions for web sites set up specifically to expose a leader’s sins.

The 5 Worst Books For Your Children. Interesting thoughts.

23 Signs You’re Secretly an Introvert.

18 Fun Things To Do Before Going Back to School. I think most students have already, but these are still fun ideas.

And something to bring you a smile:

Have a great weekend!

Laudable Linkage and Quotes

Here are a few noteworthy reads from the last week:

How to keep Millennials in the church? Let’s keep church un-cool, written by a Millenial. “What I need is something bigger than me, older than me, bound by a truth that transcends me and a story that will outlast me; basically, something that doesn’t change to fit me and my whims, but changes me to be the Christ-like person I was created to be.”

Is Glory God’s Only Goal?

When you think your love story is boring. It’s not like in the movies: it’s better.

The Courage to Keep Going. Another benefit of stories. Especially like the third paragraph from the bottom.

A Fleshy Assessment: Ten Questions to Ask Yourself. Convicting.

And a couple of quotes that have inspired me:

Every new duty calls for more grace than I now possess, but not more than is found in Thee, the divine treasury in whom all fullness dwells. To Thee I repair for grace upon grace, until every void made by sin be replenished and I am filled with all Thy fullness. ~Valley of Vision

“If, thinking of your frailty, you hold yourselves cheap, value yourselves by the price that was paid for you.” ~ Augustine

“Sometimes God doesn’t change your situation because He’s trying to change your heart.” Unknown

Have a great weekend!