November resolution number one: write more book reviews.
It is scandalous how many books I read and never say or write a word about. A good book demands praise. So. Starting today, I’m going to do a weekly mini-review post of all the books I am reading. Just jottings; postcards if you will, from my literary travels. Longer reviews of particularly superb books will occasionally follow. But this habit will give me the chance to regularly articulate a few of the delightful, but agitated bookish thoughts constantly in my head. Feel free to join in the literary agitation.
The Brontes: Charlotte Bronte and Her Family by Rebecca Fraser
All writers need a few literary idols. I never thought Charlotte Bronte would be one of mine. I liked Jane Eyre when I read it back in high school, but it didn’t sweep me away. Charlotte herself is a different matter. The fierce, tiny woman who hailed unthinkable grief with stoic faith, who loved and dreamed with unmitigated passion- she rivets me. Loyal, sarcastic, shy, determined, an idealist whose world was the tiny box of a parsonage on the Yorkshire moors, Charlotte Bronte offers a life story that reads like a novel. Gwen loved this and passed it on a couple of years ago, and having finally gotten round to it, I feel the same sorriness in finishing it as I do on ending Victorian epics by the likes of George Eliot, or Charles Dickens.
To begin with, this is excellent history and biography. The ideas and events of Victorian England and the literary world that was so rich at that time are extensively explained, as are Charlotte’s convictions, decisions, and history. I feel educated. But Rebecca Fraser has also managed to make this biography read like a story. She allows the brisk, brilliant tang of Charlotte’s letters and journals to form the main narrative of the book. We hear directly from Charlotte of the foibles of lifestyle, thought, and faith that made her a genius of a woman and writer. From her beginning as one of six imaginative children, to her end as the lone survivor of her beloved siblings, Charlotte’s story is marked by loss and a wild sense of sorrow. But it is shot through with her stoic Christian faith, her fire-fierce love for her family, and the vivid imagination that made an inner world for her and her readers. I loved Fraser’s voice as a biographer. She is winsome, breezy, and descriptive. She shows great restraint in conjecture about Charlotte’s life, never forcing a theory where there is room for disagreement. Modern biographies often read all kinds of unfounded motives into the actions of defenseless writers who aren’t around to explain themselves. Fraser doesn’t. If Charlotte said it, it’s true. Otherwise, she leaves the matter to mystery. She also offers sympathetic, but often amused commentary on Charlotte’s rather abrasive opinions, her martyrish dedication to “truth in her art,”and her few fierce loves.
I started this book expecting to be challenged as a writer. In the end, I was heartened simply as a human soul by this story of the woman who accidentally set Victorian society on its ear with her passion and insight into human nature. Charlotte showed me the power of inner worlds, how a vivid, soulful imagination can form a story that makes a world for the inhabitation of other minds. She showed me how passion and grief can be poured into powerful creation. She also proved that it is possible to keep a soul vividly, lovingly alive in the shadowiest of situations. If you are in the mood for a long (this is 500 pages!), writerly, introspective, but tangy book and rather soulish biography, this is it.
King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
I thought of my siblings the whole time I read this. Especially my brothers. When we were all young, we spent read-aloud afternoons together which were inevitably followed by a re-enactment of our story (when we were little) or a discussion of its philosophy (when we were old and sophisticated). Our little gang would have gotten great mileage out of this book. I picked this up at Goodwill, and was going to skim it one Saturday, never expecting to be intrigued. But the actor boy Nat, the shimmering world of the stage, and a time-traveling story of Shakespearean England had me glued to its pages within five minutes. Eleven-year-old Nat is the hero of this tale, an actor of a boy who loves his role of Puck in an itinerant troupe’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When Nat gets sick on the eve of a grand performance in London’s Globe Theater, he wakes to find himself transported back to the days of Shakespeare himself. His friendship with the Bard and the time he spends in the smelly, sweaty, rollicking world of sixteenth century London, help him to sort out the secret grief that lurks in his present. A celebration of the stage, a subtle exploration of how art and friendship help us to bear grief, while also being a sensitive tale of an orphaned boy, this story has a surprising poignancy. Cooper is a writer who weaves a scene so that you feel you are in it. I’d caution though, that this really isn’t a children’s book, however much it says it is. Nothing graphic, but the themes, and Nat’s secret sorrow, make this a more mature tale.
Sacred Legacy by Myrna Grant
Steph had this waiting on my pillow when I visited in October. I’ve read a chapter a day as a storyish way to begin devotions. I am heartily pleased. My first observation is very insightful, of course: it’s not treacly. I get rankled by the plethora of spiritual books for women that lack verve, strength, challenge. Not this. The first chapter is on Perpetua, a young and beautiful Roman martyr who was so enthralled by the joy of Christ, she walked to her death singing hymns, barely aware of the arena where she met a wild animal. Try that for a devotional spark with your morning tea.
This is a collection of writings excerpted from the works of nine, ancient Christian women. Remarkable anyway for being writers in times when few women were educated at all, each woman was also exceptional in her love of God. Each chapter is prefaced by a personable introduction and short history/biography by the compiler, Myrna Grant. Grant herself is an engaging writer, using stories from her own life and travels as an intro to her easy-to-read histories of the ancient church and her bios of the featured women. These are followed by excerpts from the works of the women themselves. So far in my reading, I’ve met Perpetua, Dhuoda, a worried medieval mother writing instructions about faith to her son, and Hildegard, an opinionated, brilliant, and passionate nun. Each story, each rousing bit of ancient writing, has an energy that spurs me. I am better readied to think, to pray, but mostly to love after encountering the vivacious faith of these women. They have lots of verve. I want to too.
And now. On my currently reading, or soon to be begged, borrowed, bought, or stolen list:
1. Brendan by Frederick Buechner
2. The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Our Pain by Scott Cairns
3. Lilith by George MacDonald
4. The Importance of Being Foolish by Brennan Manning
5. Standing by Words by Wendell Berry. I am going to finally finish this.
6. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
7. The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton