Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review: The Light Princess

Earlier this fall, I was given a pair of Puffin Classics by friends of ours from church.  They had us over for dinner and we got to talking about their book collection.  They had two sets of George Macdonald’s Princess books, and very nicely handed one set to me.  I’m now the proud owner of The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie.  I loved the first; not so much the second.  Knowing that Macdonald is the father of the English Anglican fantasy (if I remember right, both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien cite Macdonald as an influence), I wanted to read more of his work.

Macdonald was not a strict Anglican but a Congregationalist minister.  His theology, as far as I can tell, is on the liberal side; for example, Macdonald “dares to hope that all might be saved,” as we said in my theology class.  He wrote for both children and adults, and is most famous now for his fairy tales, all of which reflect aspects of his Christian faith.  I was absolutely delighted, when reading The Princess and the Goblin, to interpret it using my new knowledge from theology class – my husband loves that I’m able to do this now, and absolutely beamed each time I ran from the bedroom to the living room to announce things like “the grandmother represents God the Father!”  It’s been fun to play spot-the-doctrine in Macdonald’s fairy tales.

The Light Princess (1864) is written for a younger audience than the Princess books; it is very short and my copy (from the campus library) is even illustrated.  It has a fascinating premise with some very, very odd working out of the Christian allegory.  The king and queen of Lagobel forget to invite the king’s sister to their daughter’s christening.  This is a problem because the king’s sister, Princess Mak-em-no-it (“make ‘em know it”?) is an evil witch, who takes offence at being overlooked, so she curses the princess just as the infant is splashed with water, taking away the child’s gravity.  So the “light” of the title refers not to light as in sunbeams, but light as in weight!  The princess (who is never named) is in constant danger of floating away, except when she is swimming in water – for some reason related to the water of her christening, the princess gets her gravity back in the nearby lake.  Two conflicts emerge in this book.  First, the princess is always laughing but never serious and never smiling.  She is kind of vacuous, which is a problem, because the only cure for her loss of gravity is for the princess to cry.  The king even whips his daughter in an attempt to make her cry (what?!), but to no avail.  The second conflict comes about due to Princess Mak-em-no-it’s continued jealousy and rage; with her magic sucking snake, she causes the water of the lake to descend and then disappear altogether, which of course devastates the princess.  The only solution is for a living man to sacrifice his own life to plug the hole at the bottom of the lake.  By the end of the book, both conflicts are solved, the evil witch gets her comeuppance, and all ends happily, as a fairy tale should.

So you’ve got all sorts of nifty baptism imagery and an even more perfect working out of Abelard’s moral influence atonement theory (see, there’s my theology class again), but it all ends up being rather confused and baffling because the symbols aren’t very consistent and there are those occasional really odd and unpleasant moments like the king whipping his own daughter.  On the other hand, there are some really wonderful and creative images like the princess floating above a procession of the king’s courtiers, each holding a ribbon attached to the princess’s sash (charmingly illustrated on the cover of this edition).  If you’re not familiar with Macdonald’s work, I’d recommend The Princess and the Goblin over this book, though The Light Princess certainly has its endearing moments.  If you do know it, what did you think?  I’d be fascinated to hear the opinion of someone who didn’t approach it from the find-the-Christian-theology standpoint.  How does it measure up with other Victorian fairy tales?

Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates

I didn’t much enjoy Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates: A Story of Life in Holland (1865), but in all fairness, I will admit that a good bit of my displeasure was due to a truly awful edition.  I found this one over the summer when I was digging through boxes of children’s books in my mother’s basement; I don’t know whether this was mine, my sister’s, or perhaps even one of my mother’s childhood books.  In any case, I’d never read it before and thought it would be a lovely winter read.  It was indeed quite wintery, and I really enjoyed imagining a culture where everyone gets around by skating on the frozen canal.  At the same time, though, aspects of this book really irritated me.  I sort of feel bad admitting this – I hate criticizing a classic children’s book – but then again, I’m trained to read critically and since so many of my other posts have been purely complimentary, I think it’s fair to write a review about a book I didn’t enjoy quite so much.

The Silver SkatesSo then.  First off, this edition is awful.  It’s full of spelling and grammatical errors, and even a few capitalization typos.  A pass by a decent copy editor would have greatly improved my reading experience.  The biggest problem with this version, however, is the fact that it failed to include the full title.  The book is properly called Hans Brinker, and perhaps more importantly, has a subtitle: A Story of Life in Holland.  I knew the proper main title, but not the subtitle (until just now, when I looked up the publication date online).  If I had known that the novel was intended as a more general story about Holland, rather than a straightforward tale about a poor boy and a skating competition, I would have been less taken aback by the fact that fully half of the book has nothing to do with Hans at all.

Hans Brinker and his sister Gretel are good-natured children from a family extraordinarily down on their luck.  Their father, Raff Brinker, was in a terrible accident which left him brain-damaged and mentally incompetent.  Their overworked mother is sometimes in physical danger, trying to take care of a beloved husband who no longer recognizes her.  To make matters worse for the family, their entire life savings, hidden in a stocking, disappeared just around the time that Raff was injured. The Brinkers are utterly destitute, but out of loyalty, Dame Brinker refuses to sell a valuable watch that Raff left in her safekeeping just before the accident.  The healing of this family and the mysterious story of the watch make up only one of the three major threads of this book.

The second thread is that of the skating competition: all of the youths of Hans’ and Gretel’s hometown of Broek are able to participate in a race, and the boy and girl winners will each receive a sparkling pair of silver skates.  Not only is personal pride on the line; these skates represent the promise for future livelihood and success, since the community’s entire life revolves around transportation on the canal.  Hans and Gretel, though poor, are both talented skaters, and if only they could get their hands on real skates, rather than the rough wooden ones Hans carved for them, they’d have a real chance…

The final thread of this book is the one that left me confused.  If you took a tour of a country, hitting all of the museums and landmarks, hearing all of the historical stories and legends, and then wanted to write a travel guide disguised as a children’s novel, you might have written Hans Brinker.  A group of boys – and oddly, this group did not include Hans – decided to take an adventure: over a couple of days, they skated forty miles from their hometown of Broek to the capitol city of Holland, The Hague.  The entire expedition is narrated; some of their more exciting experiences included the losing and regaining of all of their money, riding in an ice-boat, and catching a would-be robber.  Along the way, they see many major landmarks in Holland and swap stories of Holland’s past heroes (apparently, this book is the source of the legend of the boy who saved the country by stopping a leak in a dike with his finger for an entire night).  The odd thing is that the titular character, Hans, is not a presence for fully half of the book.  Readers get to know the “captain” of this expedition, Peter van Holp, better than Hans himself.

The strange pacing combined with this very lengthy inserted adventure in which neither Hans nor Gretel participated made for a frustrating read, but I do have to confess that I learned a lot about Holland (or, what an American author thought about Holland – who knows how much of this book is accurate?).  I’m glad I read it, since this children’s book is a part of our collective cultural canon, but I don’t think I’ll ever return to it.  Has anyone else read Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates?  What did you think of it?  Any idea how many of the facts and legends are true?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Top Ten Books of the Year

It’s been great fun (not to mention provided a good many new entries for my TBR list!) to read everyone’s lists of their favorite books of the year.  After much agonizing, because I read a lot of really wonderful books and marked more than ten favorites, here are mine, in no particular order and introduced with completely made-up categories:

Favorite classic children’s book: Magic By the Lake by Edward Eager
Actually the third in the delightful series beginning with Half Magic, this book was even better!  Combine children’s summertime adventures with a talking turtle and a lake full of magic for them to use, and add Eager’s highly creative and witty prose that often had me laughing out loud: recipe for a perfect way to spend an afternoon!

Favorite new children’s book: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
Actually very similar in style and premise to Eager and the other greats of classic children’s literature, Birdsall’s Penderwicks series is at once nostalgic and relevant and utterly charming.  Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty are some of the most believably characterized group of children I’ve read about in a long time.  There will be five books in all, and I can’t wait for the final two to come out.

Favorite children’s book which works even better for adults: Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster
This is a darling gem of a book that I wish I'd found ten or fifteen years ago so that I could grow up with it. An epistolary novel (swoon!), this book is a series of letters written by orphan and would-be author Jerusha Abbott to the man who has anonymously sponsored her college education. Judy, as she decides to call herself, is spunky and thoughtful, and absolutely delighted to encounter a whole new world of education: "I didn’t know that Henry the Eighth was married more than once or that Shelley was a poet. I didn’t know that people used to be monkeys and that the Garden of Eden was a beautiful myth. I didn’t know that R.L.S. stood for Robert Louis Stevenson or that George Eliot was a lady. I had never seen a picture of the Mona Lisa and (it’s true but you won’t believe it) I had never heard of Sherlock Holmes." Absolutely enchanting.

Most life-changing novel: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
This book really needs no explanation or introduction.  On a strange whim I still don’t understand, I checked it out from my public library when I craved something new, different, and more relevant than the young adult books I’d read and re-read countless times but could no longer enjoy as an adult.  Amazing in itself, Jane Eyre got me started reading great literature and will always occupy a special place in my heart (and on my bookshelf!)

Best seasonal read: Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
There’s no better way to read this diary of a German noblewoman’s quest to find herself through socially-unacceptable gardening than outside.  I was fortunate to read most of this book in a nearby park over the summer, surrounded by sunshine and flowers – the perfect location for the perfect summer novel!  My review can be found here.

Favorite book about the search for love and marriage: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Extremely long but worth every second!  Wives and Daughters is a masterpiece: quiet, touching, clever, beautifully written…and unfinished.  As I wrote in my reviews here and here, it’s still worth the time to tackle this exquisite novel.

Favorite book about marriage: Greenery Street by Denis Mackail
The story of a first year of marriage, Greenery Street is about the place (Greenery Street: full of small homes inhabited by newlyweds, but only until they start having children and need more space) and the institution of marriage with all its joys, arguments, misunderstandings, and shared experiences as much as it is specifically about Ian and Felicity.  I’m only a year and a half into my own marriage; this book gets it right so often that I frequently read out passages to my husband and was even more frequently compelled to laugh out loud.

Favorite book about life after marriage: All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
This book immediately leapt onto my list of new favorites. Tender, elegant, witty, amazing. After the death of her politician husband, elderly Lady Slane finally takes control of her own life. Shocking her grown children, she chooses to spend her last days renting a small house in the country, spending her time not with family but quietly, with a few gentle and artistic friends. Sackville-West's prose is beautiful, but the real triumph is this book's pacing. The contrast between contented Lady Slane and her more worldly, greedy children is illustrated through the drastically different pacing of these alternate scenes. I can only dream of aging as gracefully as this remarkable and insightful woman.

Favorite book from the world of book blogging: Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton
While it’s true that nearly all of the books I read this year came recommended by various book bloggers, this one had the most interesting introduction.  Many thanks to Simon for finding this lovely, quirky little novel and rescuing it from obscurity!  I still regret not buying a copy immediately; now it’s nearly impossible to find online for a decent price.  I consider it easily as wonderful as I Capture the Castle and hope to find my own copy someday.

And last, but most certainly not least,

Absolute favorite book of the year: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The best book I've read all year, hand's down.  I read this novel over winter break in a single sitting, shivering on my couch under a thick blanket with morning light streaming in through my living room window.  This may sound like a strange way to read a book about the summer adventures of a young girl and her grandmother, but somehow, this setting was perfect!  The Summer Book is at once beautifully simple and full of meaning, asking questions about life and offering glimpses of answers.  Sophia’s explorations of the island with her grandmother serve as a vehicle for discussion of life and death, family and relationships between people, God, tolerance, change, and wisdom.  This book sparkles, and I’ve recommended it to countless people over the course of the year.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 by the numbers

At the start of the year, when I’d newly discovered classics and great literature, I decided that unlike all recent years, I was going to make an effort to read entirely new books this year instead of re-reading the same old favorites.  I wanted to read 100  new books this year – a staggering number when you think that in past years, I’d probably read twenty-five to fifty books or so, most of which were re-reads.

I didn’t quite get there, but I’m really delighted to say that I got close.  I certainly would have reached 100 if I’d read fewer large, slow-moving classics and more children’s lit.  This year, I read without limits, selecting books as the mood struck me.  I read children’s classics which I’d missed as a child myself; I read British domestic dramas; I read fiction modern and old.  What I largely didn’t do was read fantasy and science fiction, my bread and butter for my entire life up until now.  I still enjoy those genres, but by branching out, I’ve come into contact with a whole world of literature I didn’t know existed!

So here’s my 2012 by the numbers:

  • I read a total of 98 books!  This list excludes strictly academic musicology, history, liturgy, and theology – that's almost 100 books read just for my own enjoyment.
  • 9 of those were re-reads – and not a single book this year was a re-read until book 46 on my fiction list!  It was wonderful to have such a long stretch in which every book, every character, and every situation was new.  And then it was nice to return to a few old favorites, especially while we were packing and moving.
  • Thus, I read 83 books this year that were entirely new to me!
  • 6 of those were non-fiction.  But even that number is higher than usual; I’ve always had a preference for fiction and even these six mark a step toward a more balanced book diet.
  • 5 of those were audiobooks.  I discovered how excellent it was to have a book to listen to while driving to work.  Unfortunately, that option disappeared once I became a graduate student taking the bus to school.
  • 2 of those were read aloud with my husband.  I posted a few thoughts and questions for discussion on the philosophy and process of reading aloud here and was pleasantly surprised to find out that we are not alone in this practice!

Next year, I think I’ll continue to keep my reading choices free.  I love hearing about all of the challenges you’re undertaking.  However, since my free reading has to fit around my graduate coursework and academic research, I want to keep my book selection open so I can pick according to my mood and whim.  I’m definitely not going to try to hit a total number of books next year, but try to tackle a few more books over 500 pages in length.  The main thing is to keep moving on this exciting journey of discovery!

Coming tomorrow: top ten favorite books of the year!  And coming soon: reviews of The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge, The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, and The Light Princess by George Macdonald.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas!

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

(Luke 2:1-20)

Thanks be to God!