Devilishly Clever

The Screwtape Letters. Most of us have read it at one time or another. I reread it this week with my daughters and was struck again by its often disturbing relevance and genius. On the surface, it seems like a good joke: a senior devil’s tutorials as addressed to his younger nephew, an inexperienced tempter. But I can see why Lewis himself spoke of both the ease of its inspiration , and the unpleasantness of its writing. “It almost smothered me before I was done,” he writes in the preface. “It would have smothered my readers had I prolonged it.”

Yes. But he kept it at the right length. And though not all the chapters were relatable for my daughters (some are aimed exclusively at men), Screwtape’s articulateness in describing the many layers of human folly can’t help but raise our awareness of our own inner lives. We read some of the book aloud, and listened to some via audiobook. (If you are interested in a good reader, the reading we listened to was absolutely perfect. Follow the link to hear a sample.)

One way the darkness of the letters made an impression on us was in the diabolical relationship between Screwtape and his nephew, Wormwood. “Your affectionate uncle Screwtape,” the writer’s sign-off in every chapter, has a very different meaning for the inhabitants of hell than for those still under the influence of God’s goodness in the world, and the contrast is at times quite chilling. Even the scene in which Screwtape involuntarily turns into a giant centipede in his rage over Wormwood’s failure to prevent his subject’s relationship with a vibrant Christian woman, though comical in its way, is also quite sinister.

In “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” the concluding section, Lewis offers a discussion of democracy from a demon’s perspective. Screwtape remarks that the fight for Liberty has at the heart “a deep hatred of personal freedom,” pointing to tendencies even in democratic institutions that have been highlighted by authors such as Orwell, Huxley and Vonnegut. The “Toast” was written in 1960 and is eerily on target as a criticism of present-day American society. It focuses on the outcomes of the “I’m as good as you” line of thinking, mainly the forced leveling of human gifts and abilities through political power. Much of this, Screwtape suggests, happens through the educational system. “We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men,” Screwtape assures the audience at the Tempers’ Training College of young devils. “The little vermin will do it for us.” Interestingly, this is done through making all education public, and making it unthinkable for anyone to send their children to private schools. I couldn’t help but think of the great opposition recently to Ms. DeVos, who favors school choice.

From how to exploit household annoyances, to ways to corrupt sexual impulses and romantic ideas, to uses of church in killing one’s genuine faith, to gluttony in its various forms, Screwtape shines a bright light on the strategems of hell in wooing a human soul away from the good. The best road, he points out, is the gradual one — “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” By publishing these missives, he has done his cause some serious harm.

Peace Like a River

How could I have forgotten — or did I somehow miss it before? — the power and mysterious beauty of Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River?

I pulled it off the shelf a few weeks ago to read aloud to my daughters, remembering vaguely that I had liked it when I read it over ten years ago. Had I remembered the plot in detail, I may not have chosen it as a read-aloud. But we would have been much the poorer for it.

The book takes place around 1960 and documents a year in the life of Jeremiah Land and his three children: Davy (16), Reuben (11), and Swede (9). Our narrator is Reuben, who tells us about his father’s miraculous healing abilities and close relationship with God, Swede’s obsession with writing epic western sagas, and Davy’s independent spirit and skill as an outdoorsman. The family’s rhythm is overturned when Davy shoots two intruders one night, then escapes from jail just hours before his sentencing. The rest of the tale narrates the remaining Lands’ voyage into the Badlands in search of Davy. (Yes, that’s right: the Lands go to the Badlands.)

Probably what captured the girls initially was the humor of Reuben’s narrative. He speaks with wit and a self-deprecating humor that made the book great fun to read aloud, and his descriptions of people, settings and his own internal drama show a keen eye and an honest heart. Though Reuben praises Swede’s writing abilities and intelligence countless times, we never regret that he is the one telling this story.

The murder — or act of self-defense — caught us by surprise. That was a first here in Read-Aloud World. Yet Reuben relates it realistically, including his unexpected sympathy for the intruders as they die. Sometimes in movies, you can watch whole herds of people die in battles, but Reuben gets it right: it is a terrible thing to see someone die. He gives it the gravity it deserves. Further, the moral complexity of the killings comes through. The questions of whether they are justified, or whether Davy went too far, are handled with grace. If you have to read about someone getting killed, at least in this book it is given its proper weight.

This isn’t the last we see of brutality in the book, but it is told truthfully and from a humane perspective. The story repeatedly juxtaposes the Land family’s actual experiences in the West, and the western romance tradition that so colors Swede’s worldview, celebrating and interrogating our desire to reflect truth, meaning and nobility through art.  Reuben’s effort to work out his response to Davy in a way that honors both love and justice expresses this tendency as well. As in Enger’s other novel So Brave, Young, and Handsome, the world of Peace Like a River is filled with meaning — a “vale of soul-making,” as Keats would say —  and we never doubt the ways the supernatural leaks in, however unorthodox.

Somehow it captivated us. It’s not a kid’s book with a happy ending, as one daughter commented — though the ending is satisfying and moving just the same. Peace Like a River has a realism not restricted to material reality, a severity and beauty that hold it in mind and leave us remembering and pondering its characters. I’d say it was unforgettable, yet somehow I had forgotten… Reading it aloud this time and sharing the experience with others, I suspect it will not slip away again.

House of the Seven Gables

We’ve had some cheerful reading around here lately: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, mentioned in our history textbook. I’ve been reading it aloud to the girls at lunchtime, trying to model how to go about engaging with a not-necessarily-accessible “classic” book. For some reason even I don’t understand, I decided this was not enough dark, spiritually probing Hawthorne, and in my spare time I reread The House of the Seven Gables.

These experiences challenge me to think about what it means to “like” a book or an author. For me, it seems, “liking” a book doesn’t entail pure entertainment; it can involve some intellectual work. Hawthorne’s sentences alone require a certain discipline to hold the first part of the sentence in mind during the long meander to the end, and the antiquated vocabulary and turns of phrase force the reader to slow down. This was particularly striking to me, since after reading a chapter of The Scarlet Letter, I also read aloud a chapter of the book of Acts. The Bible was much easier reading! — more simple sentences, more directly constructed, than Hawthorne’s.

The subject matter too requires work. There is the leap into the past with its different social values and level of development. In Seven Gables, we begin with Hepzibah Pyncheon’s personally devastating effort to start a cent shop in the ancestral mansion in order to avoid the poorhouse, an act that plunges her from the elevated status of “lady” into the ranks of the working class. She has a boarder, Mr. Holgrave, whose progressive politics and scientific interests in mesmerism and daguerrotyping make him a representative of the forward-looking class whose concerns are now distantly removed from us. We’re left musing over what form he might take, and what interests he might have, if he lived today. Instead of mesmerism, maybe he would be waxing eloquent on stem cell research; rather than early photographic work, he might be creating virtual reality software.

Hawthorne’s interest in the psychology of fallen humanity makes for a dark fictional journey in this book. We see the fruit of family sins like greed and the lust for control. The house itself, with its dark, cobwebbed corners and decayed structure, its overgrown garden, and its centrally located portrait of the original Pyncheon sternly dominating the atmosphere, serves as a mind symbol of a family desperately in need of light from without. Like a Shakespearian comedy or a good Jane Austen novel, the conflicts are resolved through a marriage that restores order and frees the family from both poverty and depression as they move to a new dwelling.

Why do I find the book satisfying? Why do the girls seem so interested in The Scarlet Letter? I confess that I’m not sure what the appeal is. This is not escape fiction or entertainment, yet there is enough engagement of real human questions and difficulties to transcend the challenges that go along with the reading. A friend of mine confessed recently that she had never been able to finish The House of the Seven Gables, and another called The Scarlet Letter dull, so I can’t say that Hawthorne is universally loved. I have had enough for now myself. But there is something intriguing and substantive that Hawthorne draws us towards as we read, and because of that the stories will remain in my thoughts and remind me of how easily we can become trapped in the stale air of ancestral patterns or personal perceptions.

Recent Reads

booksmI’ve had different degrees of success in my reading this summer. For example, though their premises were interesting and they were in general pretty good, I fell by the wayside and failed to finish Simplicity Parenting and Sarum. After waiting weeks for The Nest to become available at the library, the opening pages turned me off quickly by presenting me with a sordid encounter.

Nevertheless, I’ve had some success. It’s a Beautiful Day, by Renee and Philip Murdoch, details its author’s healing from traumatic brain injury. An American missionary in Rio, Renee Murdoch was attacked by a homeless man who fractured her skull so violently that no one could have predicted she would survive, much less recover without any brain damage. It’s an inspiring story full of encouragement, gripping description, and quirky humor. It challenged me to persist in prayer, no matter how many times the same prayer may be required or how long it takes to reach complete — not partial — fulfillment.

The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson, is a book of essays of which I read a few. One modern trend Robinson explores in her searching, densely packed way is the loss of theological distinction and tradition in modern Protestantism. A Calvinist herself, she seeks to connect our public discourse and sense of politics to what she sees as a lack of depth in our churches. She is politically liberal and a proud proponent of “civil religion,” neither of which persuasions found a sympathetic chord in me. Yet she makes some good points that require a thoughtful consideration. For example:

The word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic… This drift is the American version of a phenomenon that is clearly widespread throughout old Christendom. A ferocious secularism can carry on its internecine wars under the names Catholic and Protestant. Notional Christians can align themselves against actual Muslims in defense of European culture and civilization, which are based on a system of belief that is no longer believed, and are therefore under a severer threat than any they could face from a competing religion…

Who can fail to think of our current election season? Robinson reminds us that this is nothing new, but only “old humankind going about its mad business as if it simply cannot remember the harm it did itself yesterday.” But the fact that it’s not new doesn’t make it less serious. And perhaps, she writes, part of it is new: “There appears to me to be a dynamic at work that is new for us, a polarization of the good on one side and the religious on the other, which will be a catastrophe for American Christianity.”

Seeing the performance of Christians throughout this campaign, and seeing the apparent faith that salvation can be found in the political process, there can be little doubt that there has been a catastrophe for American Christianity. I don’t know if Robinson’s take explains it fully, but there is surely something very wrong.

I’ve enjoyed Wendell Berry’s Imagination in Place, a book of essays that take up literary topics. He has essays presenting his perspective on several authors that I like (such as James Still and Wallace Stegner), as well as those who have been among his longest writerly friends (James Baker Hall and Gurney Norman). As always, I enjoy making my way through these thoughtful essays on art and artists. One of my classmates in graduate school remarked that Wendell Berry’s prose literally slows you down as you read, and in our hectic age this is a gift that grows steadily more valuable.

While I’m sure I read Elizabeth George Speare’s Witch of Blackbird Pond many years ago, I remembered none of it. Rereading it in advance of this year’s American history study, I felt it to be a pitch-perfect YA novel, well paced, sympathetic, and rich in detail of the period. Though the depiction of the Puritans is weighted toward the stern and curmudgeonly, there are a few scenes that show them simply merry and enjoying the life of the community and the beautiful natural setting in Connecticut. The “witch” of the story, a Quaker woman, is somewhat idealized, but ultimately the story shows the faith community growing and learning.

Finally, I revisited Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. My original, more complete review of the book is here. While I feel this book stops short of taking a Marxist view of people, it does offer a critical examination of America’s version of the rugged individualist success story. Taking selected “outliers” who perform with an extraordinary degree of success — in the IT industry, the practice of law, hockey players, pilots, and math students, for instance — Gladwell makes a convincing case for external factors like the 10,000 hour rule, family and wealth, and the occasional once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity that only comes to some. It’s a fascinating book that will make any parent consider how to help their children succeed — and encourage any individual to take a look around and see what opportunities may be quietly at hand.

One phenomenon Gladwell discusses is the importance of cultural heritage. He begins with a discussion of the Scots-Irish honor culture, and this is part of the subject matter of a book I expect to read soon: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. (You can read an interview with the author here.) The only catch is that the book needs to arrive — and just this morning I received a notice that it will be delayed. Oh well. I expect it to offer some needed insight into the surrealism of this election season, among other things.

 

Bleak House

Bleakhouse_serial_coverWe are in the midst of a Victorian novel fest around here. Both daughters have been listening to Jane Austen (just a little earlier than the Victorians, but close enough) — Emma and Pride and Prejudice, courtesy of Librivox — and I have been rereading Dickens’ Bleak House, said by many critics to be his finest novel, and one I enjoyed very much the first time. (Great Expectations and David Copperfield are also among my favorites!) The noteworthy points of this tome are many and varied, so I thought I’d mention just a few of them here. The notion of “reviewing” this well established and substantial book seems preposterous, but noting a few features that stood out to me on this reading will be worthwhile for me to look back on if I revisit it again.

  • The narrative switches back and forth from an omniscient narrator to “Esther’s narrative” — a telling from within the sensibility of the heroine, Esther Summerson. We get the intimacy of a first-person narrative in the Esther chapters, and the breadth of perspective the omniscient narrator gives us in the other chapters. The two perspectives work well together; we feel a sense of personal investment, but without the limitations of Esther’s scope of knowledge.
  • Esther herself can be somewhat cloying. She is Dickens’ “angel in the house,” the perfect representation of domestic virtue. Despite her mysterious history and lack of pedigree, she is extremely genteel and fits in well with her middle class guardian, John Jarndyce, and his other two wards, Ada and Richard Carstone. She always thinks of others before herself; she is self-effacing and humble; she scolds herself whenever she has a desire that runs counter to what she regards as conventional; and she is above all busy about Jarndyce’s estate, Bleak House. She makes the home a clean, charming, efficiently run, comfortable place, and though we never learn anything at all specific about how she manages this, we are told many times that she jingles her keys busily. She is likable, and we want her to do well. But occasionally I wanted to have a pointed chat with her about the virtues of plain honesty. She is dutiful to a fault, but somewhat disingenuous in her representation of this as what she legitimately desires at all times. But her compassion for others is the real thing, and we feel sorrow for her when she ends up disfigured by smallpox (though the disease is never named) as a result of caring for a poor, sick orphan named Jo.
  • The benevolent Mr. Jarndyce is party to a suit in chancery that has lasted for many years without resolution. He has deliberately stopped following the case and made a life for himself that’s indifferent to what the outcome may be, but Richard, his ward, is not so lucky. He, and several others, are tragically depicted as characters who have been drawn into obsession over legal proceedings in the case Jarndyce & Jarndyce, and Dickens’ satire on the judicial system in England is scathing indeed.
  • The cast of characters is incredibly extensive, and true to form, they are all revealed to be somehow connected in the end. Dickens’ sympathy is far-reaching, and as a psychologist he can be, sometimes, frighteningly on target. Though some are stereotyped stock characters, others seem to attract amazing sympathy in Dickens’ imagination. Sir Leicester Dedlock, an almost comedic figure in his sense of self-importance and preoccupation with trivial matters, rises to truly heroic proportions in his love and forgiveness for Lady Dedlock when he learns that her true history has been kept secret from him for many years. Another example is Caddy Jellyby, whose mother is a caricature of Esther Summerson’s polar opposite in her neglect of her family in favor of a humanitarian project in “Borrioboola-Gha.” Caddy successfully removes herself from her mother’s dysfunctional household only to find herself married to a man whose father is equally self-involved. Nevertheless, she is able to create a home of her own that is a loving and safe place for her family, and she is able to overlook her father-in-law’s flaws.
  • Delay. Dickens needed to use it in the novel’s original serial publication, stretching the story out from one issue to the next between March and September of 1852. He is expert at making his audience laugh, making them weep, and making them WAIT. You have to be ready to relax and enjoy the ride or it gets frustrating.
  • Mr. Bucket, one of the first detectives in English fiction, is a striking character able to relate to everyone, a solver of mysteries, an observer of details, seemingly at home at every class level and in every environment from country estate to Chancery Lane to London slum. He is less cosmopolitan but more likable than the later, more well-known Sherlock Holmes.

I could go on and on, but this will suffice to mark the territory this time around. Though Dickens himself was a complex, not entirely consistent character, I enjoyed the experience of Bleak House every bit as much on this reading as before — its comedy, its tragedy, its domesticity and raw social satire, its hominess and homelessness, its exuberant descriptions and jokes, and above all its happy ending that draws together an impossibly large tangle of plot strands into a neat, satisfying bow.

My Name is Asher Lev

mnialI’m not sure when I last read Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. It is filed under “all time favorites” in my internal library. Thinking it might be an interesting read for one of my children with an artistic talent, I decided to reread it along with her so that we could talk about it.

It didn’t captivate her, and I released her. But I kept reading myself, and the journey is different this time than I remember. Once again, I realize what a subjective and mysterious process interacting with books really is. Set in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn during the 1950’s-60’s, the story explores a question: what happens when your family and culture are in conflict with your driving gift?

This is Asher Lev’s dilemma. An artistic genius from the moment we meet him as a child narrator, Asher seems to be a plant growing in wildly unsuitable soil. In the past, I think I read with uncomplicated sympathy for Asher, and there was certainly reason. This time, reading the story as a parent, I was struck by the tense dynamics of Asher’s family. His father is a dedicated missionary of sorts, traveling the world to build Ladover communities and schools even in the most persecuted areas. He is forceful and dogmatic, condemning Asher’s art, explaining, “If you were a genius in mathematics, I would understand. If you were a genius in writing, I would also understand. If you were a genius in Gemorra, I would certainly understand. But a genius in drawing is foolishness, and I will not let it interfere with our lives. Do you understand me, Asher?”

His mother, on the other hand, is a frail, intuitive, often childlike figure. For a lengthy period after her brother is killed in a car accident, she takes to her bed and suffers an almost irreversible bout of depression when Asher is very young. He explains early on that she seems more like a sister than a mother, and even after she recovers, she often confesses to Asher that she doesn’t know what to do with him. So she buys him art supplies and brings home art books, passively encouraging Asher’s passion, but it seems mainly in order to manage him. She doesn’t want him to steal oils and brushes, so she buys them as gifts. She doesn’t feel she has the will or strength to forbid, and perhaps in her mother’s heart she knows Asher has an amazing talent that should be encouraged. But she is a perpetually divided character who seeks to please both her son and her husband. This becomes the central theme of Asher’s most sensational painting, about which he tells us in the first paragraph: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion.”

Yes. Crucifixion. Asher paints one, to the revulsion of his community and the particular offense of his family. After a long and difficult development in which the Rebbe, leader of the Levs’ Ladover community, even invites a famous non-observant Jewish artist to teach him in an act of grace and compassion that overrules his father’s hatred of art and artists, Asher chooses this most objectionable aesthetic mold to capture his feelings about the division in his own family. “I knew there would be no other way to do it,” he explains, “No one says you have to paint ultimate anguish and torment. But if you are driven to paint it, you have no other way.”

Several things stood out to me in this reading. One was the intellectual stimulation of Asher’s home and community, but the absolute void of basic emotional connection within his family. His father is a tremendous intellectual force; his mother studies and earns a PhD in Russian affairs; great emphasis is placed on learning Jewish tradition. But no one ever hugs the young Asher. No one extends encouragement or tenderness even during the time of his mother’s absence in grief, though they frequently scold him. And although some members of the community extend kindness to Asher — notably the Rebbe, the mashpia of the school, and Yudel Krinsky, a storekeeper newly arrived in Brooklyn from Siberia through the labors of Asher’s father — his own family seems devoid of all but the most otherworldly emotion. Once in awhile, we see his father transported joyfully while singing Shabbos songs. But for the most part only grief or anger are expressed directly. Asher’s family is a brooding, disconnected world. It’s no wonder he often wakes in the night feeling alone and afraid of the dark.

But I also found myself frustrated with Asher this time. Potok makes Asher the mouthpiece of a romantic view of art in which the artist is a helpless victim of the force of inspiration. He can’t help his drawing. He can’t help drawing on his wall or his school books. He loses track of time and comes home hours late to a panicked mother who had no idea he’d gone to the museum. Ultimately, he can’t help sacrificing his family to his art. This is the final question the book left me with: is Asher’s crucifixion painting, into which he paints both parents, an artistic culmination? It appears, after all, amid general agreement among the artists that Asher is now a master.

Or is the painting not culmination, but an act of cruelty, or perhaps even revenge, toward his parents? It depends on whether there is an artistic ethic. Truth, according to Asher’s teacher Jacob Kahn, is the supreme artistic value. “One must not paint everything one feels,” he explains to Asher. “But once you decide to paint something, you must paint the truth or you will paint green rot.” Perhaps that qualifier about not painting everything would have saved Asher. A portrait more deeply objectionable to his family could hardly be imagined. A part of me wanted to grab Asher and give him a good shake. What is he thinking? How could he do this? How could he?

When I have read Chaim Potok’s books, there has always been a part of me that wished I had a community like the ones he depicts — a community in which faith and life are shared fully. I didn’t feel that way this time. There is so much anger and missed connection in the story that I felt an unrelenting sense of difficulty and heaviness in the reading. But it is a great book for the strong, sometimes conflicting responses it inspires, including to its protagonist: a yearning for the young Asher to be treated more gently and lovingly, and a great frustration with the mature Asher for throwing away all hope for connection just at the moment it is within reach. Somehow, Potok enables us to see and feel from all perspectives — from the child in need of love to the mother yearning for peace to the father so quick to pronounce “foolishness.” What he doesn’t do is provide us with all the answers.

Bartleby the Scrivener

btsHave you ever read this?

Herman Melville’s enigmatic tale about a law scrivener who comes to an office on Wall Street was part of an American lit class in college. I loved this puzzling, bleak story about the law copyist, his employer, and the inscrutable sentence that makes up almost Bartleby’s entire vocabulary: “I would prefer not to.”

I’ve reread it several times now, and it draws me in every time. The narrator is a well-off middle-aged lawyer with several copyists in his employ. He hires Bartleby, who at first does a bang-up job as a scrivener. He writes diligently and neatly from morning to night and has no apparent vices, unlike Turkey and Nippers, the other two scriveners in the office.

But Bartleby’s first passive-aggressive complication is that he refuses to help proofread his work. “I would prefer not to,” he says quietly, melting back into his corner. Gradually he comes to an absolute standstill, refusing not only to proofread, but to deliver letters, to leave the office, or even to copy at all. Instead, he stands staring out the window at the brick wall ten feet away.

Stranger still is his employer’s reaction. Bartleby seems to have extraordinary power over the lawyer, who is unable either to compel him to work or to have him forcibly removed. Bartleby persists like a ghost in the office until finally the lawyer finds a way to free himself of Bartleby — he thinks.

There is a whole industry of Bartleby scholarship. Is Bartleby autistic? Is he representative of Dickens, or Melville, or Christ? Is the lawyer genuinely compassionate, or a shallow, materialistic man? Is it about mental illness, sin, or economics? Is the office a mind symbol or an Eden? Should we take Bartleby’s repeated statement as tragic, or as hilarious deadpan? The tale is dense with allusion — to other stories, to Shakespeare, to the Bible, to Melville’s own life and experience and reading. What, readers have asked since it first appeared, does it mean?

Illustration by Bill Bragg
Illustration by Bill Bragg

I have no idea. When it comes to arguing for a determinate meaning, well… I would prefer not to. I suppose the film counterpart for this tale is Peter Sellers’ Being There, in which a man who is essentially a blank slate becomes a canvas for everyone else’s vision… but he still remains an enigma.

Yet the story always intrigues me. On this reading, what struck me was the strange hold Bartleby has on his employer. What can the most moral, caring person in the world do when captivated by the suffering of another (for there is no question that Bartleby is not all right) if the needy person won’t receive help? Bartleby’s only vocabulary is rejection and deferral. How then can he be helped to any positive action?

The other idea that always occurs to me is the suspicion that I have an inner Bartleby. (Can I comfort myself that everyone does?) Deferring preferences can be an easier default than creating a positive vision for oneself: “Not sure I want to do that… Or that… Not feeling very confident about that… Almost that, but… not quite. I would prefer not to.” How many people’s progress through life seems gentle — almost as though it is dictated more by gravitational pull than by will, or preference.

As a college student, the tale interested me intellectually. I wanted to “figure it out,” a desire available mostly because it never occurred to me that a story could be forever baffling and inconclusive. Still less would it have occurred to me that I would like a baffling, inconclusive story.

Yet I do. I enjoy returning to stories for just this reason. They, and I, grow in our relationship. My appreciation for Melville’s Bartleby is deeper now; Bartleby’s bewildering paralysis, and his employer’s ultimately unsuccessful compassion, touch my heart. “Ah, Bartleby,” the narrator laments at the end, “Ah, humanity!” On a much smaller scale than Moby Dick, Bartleby the Scrivener gives us a glimpse of the same world, one in which our human experience skates on the infinite. One need look no further than the human heart.

There is actually a Librivox recording of the entire book here. The full text of the story is also available online here.

Orbiting Jupiter

Orbiting-Jupiter-Gary-D.-SchmidtI read Gary D. Schmidt’s new middle grade novel in a day. Learning about the book from Sherry’s review, I was interested — even though she had made it clear that it was not a feel-good story.

I’ll let Amazon’s description suffice for plot summary. Orbiting Jupiter tells

the shattering story of Joseph, a father at thirteen, who has never seen his daughter, Jupiter. After spending time in a juvenile facility, he’s placed with a foster family on a farm in rural Maine. Here Joseph, damaged and withdrawn, meets twelve-year-old Jack, who narrates the account of the troubled, passionate teen who wants to find his baby at any cost. In this riveting novel, two boys discover the true meaning of family and the sacrifices it requires.

Note “shattering,” “damaged,” “troubled,” and “cost,” all honest clues about the emotional impact you can expect from this tale. It was my first Schmidt read, and I wonder if the seriousness of this one’s tone and subject matter are typical.

I found the spare style suited the story well. There is no room for superfluities in the difficult effort the Hurd family must make to earn Joseph’s trust or provide a reliable atmosphere of purpose, care, and safety. The chill winter setting of the tale, the simplicity of the family’s organic farm, and the relatively small cast of characters work together with Schmidt’s stylistic economy to bring a sharp focus to the novel’s concerns.

Interestingly, there were few visual descriptions of people. I have no idea what Jackson Hurd (the tale’s 12-year-old narrator), his parents, the principal, the bus driver or any other characters look like. The only one we are given a clear visual picture of is Joseph Brook, whose hair and eyes are black, and who is “a little less than middle for height, a little less than middle for weight, sort of middle for everything else.” (One other character is described too, but I want to avoid spoilers.) He is the most detailed, and most important, figure in Jack’s world.

I felt that Schmidt handled a difficult subject with delicacy and poignancy. My only complaint was that the ending, although I saw it coming and felt Schmidt has been preparing us for it, seemed awfully abrupt. It is a gut-wrenching story, and I understand why one reviewer I read felt manipulated.

But Orbiting Jupiter is a book I would recommend, though it is deeply, realistically sad. As Sherry points out in her review, stories like Joseph’s exist, and reading can be a form of personal preparation. Even in my small circle, I know of three families who are fostering children, and it is a noble, risky gift. This story captures that generosity, and the many good fruits it can bear — along with the sometimes overwhelming cost.

There is an interview with the author here, for those interested.

Ivanhoe

ivanhoeSomehow, I had missed this famous tale! Since we are focusing on medieval history this year in our homeschool, I decided to pluck my copy of Ivanhoe from the shelf and read it aloud to the girls. It showed great faith in Sir Walter Scott, given that I have read only one of his novels (Old Mortality), and given that Twain named the sinking ship in Huckleberry Finn after him. (One of those details that has lodged in my brain for all time, for unknown reasons. Why I remember that, but forget many more important things, I will never understand…)

What an adventure! The plot revolves around the family of Cedric the Saxon, father to Ivanhoe. A parallel figure to Cedric is Richard the Lionheart, the Norman king for whom Ivanhoe fights in the failed third Crusade. Ivanhoe loses Cedric’s favor over this, but gains Richard’s.

There are a couple of love triangles in the book, too. (I wish I could draw a diagram…) Ivanhoe and Athelstane love the Lady Rowena; Cedric prefers the latter, because of his Saxon lineage. Rowena and a lovely and interesting Jewish maiden named Rebecca both love Ivanhoe. Ivanhoe and a fiery, proud Knight Templar named Brian de Bois-Guilbert are both drawn to Rebecca, but neither attraction is permissible because of the anti-Semitism of the time. So these many triangles help to establish an interesting structure to the novel.

The plot is as exciting as they come: kidnappings, a flame-engulfed castle, a return from the grave, plenty of chivalric speeches and tournaments, and an extensive cast of characters that includes King Richard, his brother John, and Robin Hood and company all work together in this tale that ignited the 19th century’s fascination with knights and castles. Though filled with detailed (sometimes ponderously so) description and elevated diction, the story enthralled my daughters. I read a chapter a day, and because I am not used to talking for so long, I would invariably start coughing 2/3 of the way through. This became known as “the Ivanhoe tickle,” which would inspire one or the other daughter to run for water.

Just over halfway through, I checked out the audiobook at the library. I enjoyed reading it aloud more, I think, but the girls were impatient with the slow pace. In the end, I was glad to have surrendered to the expert audiobook reader, because I would have been uncomfortable reading much of the second half aloud: the passionate and confused behavior of Rebecca’s captor, the many anti-Semitic statements and stereotypes, the religious hypocrisy, and the terrible plight of one character who is trapped inside the burning castle are just a few such elements. It was similar to when we listened to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and heard the story’s racism. One can hear or read it and acknowledge it as historical fact, but to say it aloud oneself almost feels like an endorsement or sanction.

It was striking to me that Ivanhoe, after whom the story is named, and the Lady Rowena, seem like mere ghosts compared to the much more dramatic and developed characters of Rebecca and Brian de Bois Guilbert. Rebecca’s courage and character, and the Templar’s conflict between passionate admiration and condescension, make them both tragic figures.

Overall, I loved Ivanhoe. It gave me the sense of getting in on the ground floor of the knights and castles craze. Scott tells a captivating story and lays bare the futility and contradiction of much in the honor code of both Knights Templar, and the Laws of Chivalry. Though some have argued that Scott’s vision laid the groundwork for the South’s defeat in the Civil War by exalting chivalric values, I felt Scott depicted their flaws honestly in the exciting package of Ivanhoe.

That Hideous Strength: Once more into the breach

thathideousstrengthThis was at least my third reading of C.S. Lewis’s culminating space trilogy novel. I reviewed one reread a few years ago here. What makes this reading unique is that it occurs on the heels of rereading the two preceding novels. I was hoping this would enable me to see more in the book than in previous readings.

And, I suppose, I did see more, as one always does in rereading. Lewis himself was a rereader, as he explains in “On Stories“:

An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare’s Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he ‘has read’ them, meaning he has read them once, and that settles the matter?… We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savor the real beauties.

So what are the “real beauties” of That Hideous Strength? The tale depicts a showdown between Good (in the form of interplanetary intelligences/eldils/angels, who enforce the will of Maleldil/God through their cooperative relationship with Elwin Ransom — a parallel to Christ), and Evil (in the form of dark eldils, or “macrobes,” who gain access to the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments [N.I.C.E.], a society of English pseudo-scientists and social engineers with megalomaniac aims). It’s not really a book I think of in terms of “beauty.” It remains a puzzling book in some ways, one that doesn’t seem to hang together very well — especially as a concluding book in a series.

Here are just a few of the questions it raises. If you’ve read the book, feel free to weigh in on any of these:

  • What is the purpose of Ransom’s little band? They never really do anything but grow vegetables and manage their menagerie.
  • Who is Miss Ironwood, and what is her history with Ransom? Where does MacPhee come from, and what purpose does he serve other than to annoy? All the characters in Ransom’s band are new in this story. Conversely, where is the narrator of Perelandra, Ransom’s dear friend who supervised his interplanetary departure and return in the last book?
  • For all the noise and sprawl of the N.I.C.E., it does not manage to accomplish much, and it seems implausible as an international entity. How does it manage to deceive so many people?
  • Why are the women in the novel so poorly imagined? (This review is an interesting take on the novel, one which takes up this subject more fully. “All of the women who appear in the book are portrayed as petulant children, dutiful wives, matronly mothers, or awful harridans,” explains the writer. “Apparently, there are no other choices for women.”)
  • Is it really science, or scientism, that Lewis is targeting in the N.I.C.E., as some have suggested? Or is it simply original sin, using science as a vehicle and idol?
  • Why Arthurian legend?
  • Why is Heaven located on Venus?
  • The ending seems anticlimactic on a number of levels. We never see Jane and Mark together. We never say goodbye to Ransom. The damage is stopped, but Edgestow is in shambles. We never see what happens to Merlin. It’s as if Lewis simply got tired of writing and stopped.

On the other hand, I did notice some things that reflect craftsmanship and care. One is that there is a perfect contrast between some elements. For instance, we have two resurrections. On the dark side, we have a scientific resurrection in the form of the criminal Alcasan’s head, kept artificially “alive” to direct the activities of the Institute; on the good side, we have Merlin’s  resurrection. Both are hailed as supernatural, but only Merlin’s really is; “the Head” of the N.I.C.E. is sort of a mixture of institutional politics stunt, satire on scientism, and conduit for demonic forces who mean ill to humanity. Merlin, however, revives a folklore from the medieval era of a more animate natural world, taken in the world of the story to be historical fact. Like the Narnia of Dawn Treader in which trees no longer talk and mythic creatures have withdrawn into deep hiding from the Telmarines, the England of That Hideous Strength is silent, but it has not always been so. Merlin embodies the Arthurian age, when, as Ransom explains, the little versions of the planetary intelligences roamed the earth, and bushes and grasses and beasts had commerce with men. His is an unsettlingly real resurrection, directed by powers beyond the earth, unlike the N.I.C.E.’s humanly directed, grotesque notion of “eternal life.” Alcasan’s head is a dark parody of self-worship and progressive scientific thought carried to an extreme. On its altar-like pedestal, the Head is also an idol, made in man’s image, but co-opted by dark forces.

Another juxtaposition I noticed is the attitude toward organic matter in general, and the body in particular. The N.I.C.E. wants, ostensibly, to eliminate body, diversity, sex, matter in general. In one memorable scene, the scientist Filostrato throws open the curtain and waxes poetic about the beauty of the lifeless, cold moon. Body has produced mind, his reasoning goes, and thus body has done its work. On to a master race of pure mind. But Ransom, on the other hand, affirms all that the N.I.C.E. denies. He encourages Jane Studdock, the tale’s visionary female protagonist, to give herself without reserve to her estranged husband; he keeps a bear and a crow in his house; his farmette is a veritable Eden.

The aspect of the book that I always appreciate, no matter my frustrations with it, is Lewis’s prescience about the modern mind. Said to be the fictionalized model of Lewis’s argument in The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength explores the reaches of human pride and ambition, and the convenience of materialism as a vehicle. That science remains a frontline in our ethical dilemmas is obvious: for example, in this story about making changes in human DNA; in the debate over climate change; in the teaching of evolution and its inherent assumptions about humanity; in the increasing development of technology. Anyone who reads That Hideous Strength will find a disquieting forerunner to our present-day debates. If the perspective set forth in the N.I.C.E. represents a caricature of the scientific mind and its joining of forces with political power, what is the alternative? Lewis’s attempt to make Ransom the spokesperson for a Christian perspective on Nature is not nearly as well developed. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I keep returning to this book: it raises questions and issues that are as relevant now as they were in 1945. Though it has its frustrations, the experience in these pages includes rewards enough that it will probably invite me back.