Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Book You May Want to Read


I've been reading reviews and other articles on Suzannah Rowntree's blog for a while now, and was interested to hear that she is going to release a novel of her own this March. The premise sounds intriguing, and I look forward to reading my own electronic copy.

Suzannah sent me some announcement material to share, and here it is!




Synopsis

Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she even wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of--or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?


Author Bio

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of two non-fiction books, The Epic of Reformation: A Guide to the Faerie Queene and War Games: Classic Fiction for the Christian life. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, springs from her lifelong love of medieval literature.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Advent Quick Takes


1. 
***

This Advent is going by swiftly, as all Advents seem to do ever since I reached adulthood. I remember how long the weeks before Christmas once seemed to be. We girls would make our Christmas lists, lie in front of the tree to gaze upon any packages, bake cookies, draw endless cards to go into people's stockings, and wait. It was a time of preparation for something that we knew was good. Perhaps that part of the message of Advent is easier for children to grasp than adults.

Because we won't be home for Christmas, it seems silly to bother with a tree, so we haven't. I am suffering from Christmas-tree-envy as I look in all the neighbors' windows and see their beautiful lights and ornaments.

However, we have been enjoying other Advent activities.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In Which I Try to Pin Down Differences Between Great Authors and Not-Quite-Great Ones




I am simultaneously reading two books right now. One is Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin (this is a reread for me) and the other is Anon, Sir,Anon by Rachel Heffington. I’ve written about Lavinia before. Richly steeped in the world of ancient Italy, it is the story of a minor character from Virgil’s Aeneid. Not only is it a remarkable portrayal of a woman who is strong without falling into modern tropes or cultural expectations, but, in the true spirit of Virgil’s original epic, it is also an examination of the concepts of piety and virtue. I am discovering all kinds of themes and ideas that I had not noticed the first time.

Ms. Heffington’s book is a period murder mystery, set (as the book jacket tells us) “against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog.” Thus far it is enjoyable in its own way. The character who most interests me is the eccentric, Shakespeare-quoting, cantankerous old uncle who eschews relations and solves murders. The language is bright and sprightly, full of the obvious influence of various English authors from past eras (perhaps especially P.G. Wodehouse). It is in the handling of the characters that Ms. Heffington’s relative inexperience shows most. I find myself sometimes unsatisfied as a scene progresses. I wish to remain absorbed in the story, but little flaws--little clouds in the clarity of the author’s purpose when a character speaks or acts--arise to push me back to the status of objective observer and critic. It is not reasonable to expect every author to write with the skill of Mrs. Le Guin, but it is instructive to ask oneself what the difference is.

When I read Lavinia, every single word communicates to me. The feelings and personalities of the characters feel utterly real. If a situation is ambiguous, I know that it is on purpose. When I read “lesser” authors, I usually know what they are trying to tell me, but sometimes they fumble. Sometimes I am not sure whether or not a given impression was intentional. Sometimes their characters seem unintentionally inconsistent, or it seems as if the character may have said their line merely because the author thought the line was funny or clever, instead of because the line tells the reader something about the character. I'm sure my own stories have this problem, as well. 

I am trying to form hypotheses about what causes these differences. I think certain mistakes tend to rob a passage of narrative power:

1.      Too many minor emotions in one scene. The protagonist and other characters are afflicted with a whole chain of feelings (embarrassment, pique, amusement, fear, etc.) without proper build-up.
2.      Vagueness of purpose. If an author has made it clear that a particular character is, say, overly imaginative and inclined to be unduly fearful, I accept scenes in which the character behaves that way. If the author instead makes the character just a little too imaginative or fearful in a random moment or two, I tend to suspect that the author is unintentionally overdoing the scene. This makes me frustrated.


What else?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gold Thread at Christmas


A short story by Anna Ilona Mussmann

This is something that I wrote two years ago and have recently edited. It's a bit of light fun, and no babies were harmed in the making of it. Merry Christmas to all my readers!


Shivering, the dwarf pressed both hands into his armpits. His summer jacket was as inconsequential here as if the void through which he had passed had spat him out naked. While he waited for the dizziness to pass, he scowled at the brick buildings that loomed upwards in their narrow lots—they filled him with a sense of puny unimportance. This world was tall and bland, full of unadorned cart horses and workmen in iced-over mustaches. He would be doing a favor to the child he had come to take.

Despite the cold, the dwarf unfastened the second to last button on his waistcoat before he selected assistance.

Two men trotted along the sidewalk, sprigs of holly pinned to their lapels. The open bottle that one of them clasped against his snowy shirt front seemed to be their defense against the cold. They, too, towered above him, glossy black hats increasing the contrast in height.

“I beg your pardon,” he declared, barring their path. “Can you gentleman direct me to the location of the royal birth?”

Two bewhiskered faces stared down at him. One guffawed, baring tobacco stained teeth. “What have we here? A circus midget? Better get back to your keepers, little fellow, or you’re liable to be mistaken for an organ-grinder’s monkey.”

“Look at him!” exclaimed the plump one. “Gold embroidery, red cap, the lot.”

Stepping backward, the small traveler cracked his hairy knuckles. “I beg your pardon,” he repeated grimly. “Do you intend to answer my question?”

“Loopy,” the tobacco-lover observed.

The plump one added more kindly, “This is a democracy, my small friend. We don’t hold much with royalty here.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

We Shop Because We Yearn (at The Federalist)


My opinion on why we buy pink (or blue) baby tubs and crazily-expensive wedding dresses. Plus a Dorothy Sayers quotation, which always makes an article better.

We Shop Because We Yearn 
Bridal gowns, baby gear, and other stuff we shop for are part of the human quest for identity and quietly acknowledge the realities political correctness seeks to deny. 
In “Murder Must Advertise,” a Dorothy Sayers mystery novel from 1933, the aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover in an advertising firm. The narrator tells us, “He had never realized the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vast superstructure of industry founded and built up, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.” 
The advertising of our decade is very similar: products are advertised not as shirts, cereal, or face lotion, but as “something to make you look thin,” “something to help your kids get good grades in school,” and “something to make you look like Jennifer Lawrence.” The items with which we fill our shopping carts are as much ideas, fantasies, and forlorn hopes as they are food and raiment. Advertising is manipulative, but in its own limited way, it also reveals the yearnings of the American heart.
Read the rest HERE.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Dated Mystery Story


Over Thanksgiving weekend, my family discovered a small library sale, and I picked up a few paperback mysteries, including a book of short stories by various authors. On the drive home, I read the first story aloud to my husband while he drove.

Here is the gist of the plot: A young woman returns to the town of her birth and discovers that her identity is not what she thought. Shall I spoil it for you? Turns out that this woman’s (so-called) mother, devastated by the loss of her own child in a housefire, kidnapped her former-employers’ toddler and raised that girl as her own. Thus, our impecunious heroine is really the long-lost heir of an eccentric, wealthy recluse.

The part of the story that feels most dated is the way in which the story resolves. The wealthy recluse lives a sterile, rich life without heart (you know how those rich people are--all furniture polish and no humanity) and has no interest in her child. The daughter she wanted is one raised by herself to be a poised socialite, and the young woman who has appeared is not that person. She offers to pay her to go away. Naturally, our impecunious heroine, who lives on a part time job at a gift shop, disavows all interest in such filthy lucre and returns to her friends in the cash-strapped town. Ultimately, she is given the gift of a rundown but once-beautiful house on a piece of land and accepts it because it came “with no strings attached.” Hurrah for noble principles.

The bare bones of the story could have been presented convincingly. As it is, they fall flat.

Reading it, I was surprised that such a weak tale made it into such a book. Yet I’ve noticed that a simplistic condemnation of the isolated, over-protected, “non-authentic” life of the rich (placed in opposition to a free-hearted, more ethical, more footloose life) does seem to pop up in stories from the 1990’s. During that decade it apparently felt fresh enough to be acceptable without any finesse or real development. Nowadays the writer would have had to do a bit more with such a theme.

Thinking about the story, it helps me understand a bit better why some books do, and others don’t, deserve to become classics. This story feels dated and incomplete today even though other tales from the same decade are still highly readable. Probably that is because they hinge upon the universal human condition instead of whatever social commentary was currently popular. That is something for me to remember with my own fiction writing. I need to restrain myself from trying to share too many opinions, and instead develop my observations. There is a difference.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dealing with Anne Shirley, And Other Quick Takes




1.
***

First, a digression: Recently I blogged about Jules Verne, Ursula Le Guin, dragons, and giant octopi. I've significantly expanded that into an article about the subtle, hidden, cultural rules of storytelling. You can read it at The Federalist.


2. 
***



L.M. Montgomery's Anne Shirley is so very, very beloved by many readers that I hesitate to confess my ambiguous feelings about her. Each time I return to the novels (which I read several times throughout childhood, and very much enjoyed at the time), I find myself resenting her for being airbrushed and perfect. That might sound like a weird statement, since Anne is presented as a decidedly flawed individual who is always getting into "scrapes." However, every single one of her flaws are of the sort that readers are most willing to forgive. Inclined to daydream? Good, it makes the story better-- besides, our culture admires and encourages dreams, imagination, and originality. Generous to a fault? How sweet. Passionate tempered? Adds drama, and fits our desire for feisty heroines. Anne has flaws, but they are all romantic flaws. That is rather different from having the unattractive, wart-like flaws that tend to beset us real humans.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An Alien Sainthood


We remember Elizabeth of Hungary today. I must admit that I am not aware of the history of why Lutherans have selected this particular medieval woman for such official recognition. All I know is that she is admired for her self-sacrificing charity and generosity to others, and is one of the relatively few individuals commemorated in our Lutheran hymnal. You can find a brief text about her life here.

However, I was struck by one brief sentence (see the above link). After she was made a widow at the age of twenty, she "made provisions for her children and entered into an austere life as a nun in the Order of Saint Francis." Wow. Because she was married at the age of fourteen, the eldest of her three children could not have been any older than five or six. Yet she gave them into the care of someone else so that she could pursue austerity in a convent. Sorry, kids, Daddy is dead and Mommy is leaving. To top all that off, "Her self-denial led to failing health and an early death in 1231 at the age of 24."

To modern ears, Elizabeth's choices sound quite dreadful. They fly in the face of the priorities that we consider moral. As a mother myself, I find it hard to understand why she didn't wait until her little ones were grown.

The fact that Elizabeth's actions are considered proof of inspiring, saintly virtue shows that a cultural divide lies between her day and ours. The sanctity of the nuclear family was not a medieval value. Furthermore, the (Victorian?) idea that any decent woman would put her children first was not "obvious" to Elizabeth and her contemporaries. Nor did they recoil at a self-denial that we moderns would probably diagnose as dysfunctional or even a sign of mental illness (since it led to death).

There are, of course, many reasons for these differences, including the simple one that the nuclear family was not a sustainable unit in an era when death frequently winnowed out both parents and children. Besides, long-term life goals (such as a plan of entering a convent once one's youngest kid graduated from high school) would have been far more tenuous.

Despite all of my intellectual willingness to understand the values of Elizabeth's day, my emotions still balk at her choices (I can't help being from Twenty-First Century America). However, the beautiful thing is that Christians need not all belong to the same culture, live in the same way, or agree with each other's actions. It is good to be reminded sometimes that the many things I mentally categorize as being part of the "Christian life" are not perhaps ultimately important. What matters is not us and our culture and our Christian lifestyles, but Christ and the cross.


***

I am going to listen to this Issues, Etc. episode about her. Perhaps it will help me understand.


St. Elizabeth of Hungary bringing food for
the inmates of Wellcome.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Two-Year Blog Anniversary


Wow. I have been keeping this blog for two years! It doesn't feel that long.




When I first started posting, I lived in a little student apartment with my husband. I remember having him read my first post, and being extremely excited when it achieved multiple page views. Four or five! More than just the two of us! It was heady stuff.

In these two years, the post that has received the most page views is the one about how Fashion Was Easier When Women Wore Corsets.

Second most popular was the first in the "How to Homeschool Without Warping Your Kids" series.

In my personal opinion, the article that probably had the best illustrations is this one because it has little bunny memes that I made myself.


Writing for this blog is a lot of fun. I'm grateful that I've been able to do so. Thanks very much to all of you who read what I post!


Friday, November 14, 2014

There May Not be a Santa Clause, Virginia; But Advent is Real




Recently I was able to hear a presentation by Dr. Cameron Mackenzie, a scholar and professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne. He made the point that the way that we think about history is very different from the way that Martin Luther did so. When we study the past, we are looking for patterns of natural causes and effects. When Luther looked at history, he spoke frequently of the direct action of both God and Satan.

Insulated by years of scientific advances, we tend to think of life as primarily something that we can improve and control. For instance, we expect as a matter of course to be able to find cures for illnesses and to eradicate diseases. In contrast, Luther and his contemporaries did not see the world as under the control of humanity. Life was something that happened to one, and disease and death was something that could come at any time (as could a miraculous deliverance from death).

I wonder if we are not in danger of losing sight of a reality that Luther knew very well. It can be too easy for us to feel that we are in control of our lives. With the adjustment of a thermostat and the willingness to pay a utility bill, we can summon cold in summer and heat in winter. With a bit of voice activated android technology, we can chat with people who would otherwise be unreachable. We are even encouraged by our culture to pursue our personal happiness at any cost, and told that we can achieve any dream if we will only believe in ourselves. It is tempting to utter the idolatrous words of Henley’s poem “Invictus” and to say, “I am the master of my fate.”

And yet, we are not. No matter how many Paleo steaks and organic vegetables we eat, we cannot stop ourselves from dying, perhaps today or perhaps in thirty years. No matter how many self-actualization classes we take, we cannot make our significant other love us (or even stick with us) in the way that we want. No matter how resolutely we try, we cannot even prevent ourselves from the very sins that hurt ourselves and those we most love. That is why we need Advent.

To submit to the rhythms of a church calendar helps us to remember that, just as we cannot make today Christmas (no matter how many Bing Crosby tunes we play), we cannot rule our own fate. To live according to an external order is to be free of the terrifying, lonely, ultimately empty illusion that the world belongs to us.


***

Joining Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife for an Advent Link-Up Party!


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

My Favorite Picture Books



Recently, while listening to the Read-Aloud Revival podcasts, I found myself wondering how I would answer the question, "If you were stranded on a desert island with your family, what three fictional books would you want to have with you?"

I asked my husband about this. We had trouble deciding. The problem is that the definition of "three books" is a little squishy. For instance, does the Globe Illustrated Complete Works of Shakespeare (a massive volume, to be sure, that would probably sprain your wrists if you tried to read it) count as just one book? The Chronicles of Narnia can also be purchased in a single volume. Does that count as only one? In which case, I'm sure that there are anthologies of British novels that would include multiple books.... Or perhaps I could get some of my favorite books bound into three large volumes. Maybe the problem is with us. Maybe we have the minds of people who cheat when they answer hypothetical literary questions.

A little later, someone asked me to come up with a list of three books that I would recommend for each of his two young daughters.

These mental exercises have resulted in my wanting to provide you all with a list of my favorite childhood picture books. These are the volumes that I would like to have to read to my children if we had no other picture books available, whether or not a desert island was our home. I did not manage to limit the list to a mere three, but it is still fairly short.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Here Lie No Dragons: Unspoken Rules of Socially Acceptable Storytelling

(Or, What I Learned from Ursula K. Le Guin and Jules Verne)

UPDATE: I expanded this blog post into an article for The Federalist, (read it here).


As I peruse Jules Verne’s dramatic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I am repeatedly struck not just with a case of I-am-not-buying-into-this-improbable-event-in-your-plot, but with actual discomfort. There are certain passages that conform to Nineteenth Century mores but clash with ours. Nowadays, when we talk about the astonishing creatures of the ocean, we are supposed to sound…. well, positive. Admiring. We aren’t supposed to judge them according to human standards of behavior or physical appearance, and to declare some of them (such as gigantic octopi) “monstrosities of nature,” or to decide that others (like sperm whales) are “mischievous creatures” who should be slaughtered in a “wholesome massacre” because of their supposed viciousness toward other, nicer whales. Our modern stories are supposed to focus on the danger that unrestrained humanity poses to the animals, not the danger that wild animals pose to humanity. To read about a scientist who says, “What a magnificent specimen of a rare creature! Quick, kill it!” feels downright awkward. I myself am no foe of hunting, but I am enough of a child of my era to experience unease when the fictional sea runs red with the blood of whales.

I am also reading the first story in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea (a collection of novellas that intersect with her Earthsea fantasy novels). What fascinates me is the contrast between this story and the author’s first Earthsea novel from 1968 (in the forward to Tales from Earthsea, Mrs. Le Guin herself acknowledges that the vast social changes in moral outlook have changed her own view and thus her stories).

The first Earthsea novel is called A Wizard of Earthsea. In it, a young man named Ged travels the difficult path to wizardry and self-knowledge. The story is unconventional in many ways that were, in their day, quite bold. For instance, although not all the book jacket illustrations reveal this, the hero and most of the characters are not white people. For another, instead of engaging in epic warfare (or any warfare at all) the hero endures a long quest that ultimately revolves around facing and accepting his mortality. It is a hero saga and a quest story with a counter-cultural, reflective atmosphere (and without any fair-haired maidens who require rescue).

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