Thursday, December 14, 2006

Elements of Good Story, Part 3

Here's the last few items on the list. I'd certainly like some feed-back! Would you add anything else? What would you put in a story?

Good Laughter


One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 17:22, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine, but a broken spirit drieth the bones.”

Example: Anything by P.G. Wodehouse

Surprise!

There’s no point in reading a story when you can guess the ending in the first few pages. I really, really, really don’t want to know the ending before I get there. If only I could apply that to my own life story!

Examples: O. Henry’s short stories, most of Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries.


Contentment

Story-world is nice for a season, but I can’t live there forever. The best stories inspire an attitude of thanksgiving to God and make me eager to go out and experience life to the fullest.

Examples: The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Elements of Good Story, Part 2

Continuing on with the list...

Quality craftsmanship


It is appalling how many books there are that, despite the good intentions of the author lose their effectiveness because of a weak grasp of the fundamentals of good writing. I try to look past atrocious sentence structure and repetitive vocabulary, but I confess that there have been many times that I’ve been tempted to get out my red ink pen!

Sad to say, the worst examples that I have seen have come from modern Christian writers. I wonder how much this low standard of excellence has damaged our testimony in the eyes of the world.

Vital description

I’m not looking for superfluous page fillers, but rather for descriptions that are important stage setting material. Every word is vital to understanding what comes next.

Example: Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Choice words

My favorite books contain a large selection of words, set together in deliciously surprising ways. P.G. Wodehouse is a master of the unexpected metaphor and simile.

Squeaky Clean

Am I the only one who doesn’t like coming away from a book feeling the immediate need to rinse my brain out?

Beauty

I love an author who can give me a glimpse of the beauty of life, even in the small things. I’ve found beauty in the oddest places, most unexpectedly in an essay on the contents of his pockets by G.K. Chesterton.
These odd moments of discovery are a major reason why I keep reading. I know I’ve found one when I feel like smiling till I burst!

Examples: Tremendous Trifles by G.K. Chesterton, Nearby by Elizabeth Yates, many passages in the works of L.M. Montgomery.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Elements of Good Story, Part 1

This series of posts has been a long time coming, I know. So sorry for the delay!

When I wrote about “Good Story” a while back, I asked for input about the things you like in a story, as well as promising to give my thoughts. I’ve come up with a list of twelve things that I feel are necessary to a good story. Certainly, not every story has all these characteristics—I have yet to find the ideal story—but my favorites embody many of them.

So, on to the list:

A framework of a Biblical worldview

The good guys win and the bad guys get what they deserve. Tragedy isn’t the end of the story, except for the lost. I want none of this raw “realism” with its continual struggle and death. The philosophy of the “survival of the fittest” is pure fantasy. In life’s story, the Christian looks forward to the happy ending.

Believable characters

I need to be able to identify with at least some of the protagonists in a story. In some way, the author must convince me that within the pages of Story-world, his characters are alive. I don’t want cut and dried stereotypes or people who have life down pat.

Characters who grow

Characters who don’t grow might as well be dead. Life isn’t static, and stories shouldn’t be either. I want to see characters that struggle, persevere, and overcome, because then I am inspired to do so as well.

Examples: They Loved to Laugh by Kathryn Worth, Brave Interval by Elizabeth Yates.

Applicability without preaching

I can only stomach so much of “and the moral of this is…” I applaud the author who realizes that most readers are possessed of a brain! However, there are some instances when the spelling out of a moral can be appropriate. The fable and fairy tale come to mind.

Agree or disagree? Have something to add?
The comment feature is easy to use. :-)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Change in comments

I recently eliminated comment moderation on this blog--partly because there haven't been any comments to moderate! Also, maybe it will make it easier for those of you who don't like waiting for me to check my e-mail (which is usually at least once in a blue moon!) .

However, I still have "anonymous" comments disabled. I like to know who I'm talking to...even if it's a pseudonym. Being anonymous looks like the first step to being a snake in the grass, anyway!

How about suggestions for a more interactive blog? I don't mean to sound stand-offish--do I come across that way? It's hard for me to think of interesting questions to ask.

Comments, please?

An Apology for Story

This is a paper I wrote for a local homeschooler's gathering. I presented it last night, and decided to post it here as well...

An Apology for Story


Apology: A formal justification, defense. A desire to clear the grounds for some course, belief, or position.1

Story: a connected series of events, real or imagined, with a common theme.2

Story. It is something we’ve all grown up with. Some of my earliest memories are of snuggling up close to my daddy, listening as he spun a tale of childhood—of playing cowboys and Indians with neighborhood children, of hearing the early morning clatter of pots and pans as Grandma cooked breakfast.

Later, my mother would spend hours reading to me. I followed Laura Ingalls across the open prairies, chanted the rhymes of Dr. Seuss and rejoiced when Peter Rabbit didn’t get his milk and berries.

As I learned to read on my own, I discovered that there truly is no “frigate like a book,”3 to take me to worlds unknown. I have never traveled beyond the borders of my homeland in the flesh. But in my mind, I can taste the tang of salty ocean breezes, see the rugged beauty of the Scottish highland, and traverse the staggering expanse of the Arabian Desert. I have friends from every age and every race. I know peasants, knights, farmers, painters, explorers and kings.

Books, but especially storybooks, have become integral and vital parts of my everyday life.

Imagine my surprise when one day I learned that it is not so for many people. For many, reading stories is considered to be an occasional luxury, or even as something to be shunned.

Imagine my amazement when one day I read that “modern Christians have forgotten the art of storytelling.”4 It truly is a sad loss. When I see bookstore shelves filled with the disposable cotton candy that is storytelling today, I wonder why.

As I pondered these disturbing facts, I began to wonder if it is because we have forgotten the importance of story. And even more importantly, whether we’ve forgotten the Storyteller.

Have you ever wondered why God chose to communicate to us in the way He did? He could have given us a list of the “Top 10 things you need to know about life.” He could have given us an encyclopedia of important facts. But instead, He told us a story. A story so incredible that it would sound like a fairy tale, if we didn’t know it was true. God’s book is a gripping tale of Paradise Lost, of a “poisoned” fruit, and a generational curse. It’s a story of a captive maiden saved by a knight in shining armor. It’s a tale of epic battle between a king and a wicked dragon. It’s about the beggar girl who marries the prince.5

Why read stories? We read stories because it is the natural way that we, as humans, learn. As Douglas Wilson wrote, “when it comes to having a need to orient all beliefs within a story, mankind is incorrigible…We do this for the same reason that we stick to the ground when we walk—this is how our Creator decided to do it.”6 A story takes abstract, dead ideas and resurrects them into vibrant life.

It sounds novel, but it’s true: I have learned more from stories than from sermons, lectures or textbooks. This is because through stories I see an author’s worldview fleshed out. My view of life is expanded, and I see the world through new eyes.

It is easy to unthinkingly absorb the ideas of our age, to allow our mental vision to become narrow and self-centered. But in books, the distance between our time and the wisdom of the past becomes only a thin veil.7 In books, my mind steps from it’s own small box and moves into the realm of wise men. This is how we escape the modern foible that C.S. Lewis called “Chronological Snobbery,”8 that prideful idea that we have all the answers and therefore have no need to learn from the past.

Stories don’t have to have a moral spelled out to be valuable. In fact, I admire authors who respect their readers enough to let them find the lessons for themselves. C.S. Lewis, speaking of writing for children, said, “Let the pictures tell their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life.”9 He brought up a point that is worth dwelling on. No art form is neutral. It is inevitable that an author’s worldview will be laced throughout every word he puts on paper. As Christians, we need to be acutely conscious of this and look at every story through the glass of the Greatest Story.

This is the starting point in appreciating great stories. How familiar are you with God’s story? Do you know the Author of that Story? If not, don’t leave tonight and grab Alice in Wonderland off the shelf.10 We need to get our priorities straight: put first things first, and become totally immersed in the waters of God’s word.

Once a person has done this, an exciting thing happens. He can begin to use his imagination to fulfill through story the mandate that God has given to live in His image, to be fruitful and to take dominion over the earth.11 J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of “subcreation” is built upon this premise. An important aspect of this type of writing is the use of “eucatastrophe”, that is, the happy ending in the midst of overwhelming odds. “Eucatastrophe” is the opposite of tragedy, something that is unthinkable for the Christian. Tolkien, in his essay entitled “On Fairy-Stories” described his idea of eucatastrophe as a “sudden and miraculous grace…. it denies….universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world…”12

Stories are important to me. They can be beautiful, thoughtful, and extremely influential.
My desire is that someone here in my audience would be inspired to see, first of all, God’s word, and then other books, in a new light. I hope someone here will begin to read more widely and to write stories to the glory of God.

I’ll close with a quote by Douglas Wilson: “…this is the fundamental theology of story. God so loved the world that He sent His Son. And God so loved the world that He told us the story of what He had done. And so should we.”13

Notes:
1Websters New Collegiate Dictionary (G & C Merriam Co., 1974), 53
2My own summary of various definitions.
3Robert N. Linscott, Selected Poems & Letters of Emily Dickinson (Anchor Books, 1959), 184
4Douglas Wilson, “Love Story.” Credenda/Agenda, Volume 15, Issue 6:4
5Genesis 3; Isaiah 27:1, 54:5-6; Revelation 19:11-16, 20:1-10
6Douglas Wilson, 4
7Metaphor inspired by Elizabeth Yates, Nearby (New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1947), 46
8Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide (Harper San Francisco, 1996), 553-554
9 C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), 33
10No insult to Lewis Carrol implied. I highly appreciate his stories.
11Genesis 1:28; Colossians 3:17
12J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted in Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien:Author of the Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 211
13Douglas Wilson, 4

Copyright 2006 Kara J. Alumbaugh

Friday, October 27, 2006

Good Stories: An interview with my family

Several weeks ago, I posted a favorite Theodore Roosevelt quote: “I am in the mood for a good story. Of course, I am always in the mood for a good story.”

As I posted it, I began to wonder “what is a good story?” It was a question I’d never really pondered before. I know I love a good story, but the qualities that define a good story have never really come into the forefront of my thoughts.

I decided to do a little survey of my family members. Interestingly, no one brushed me off saying, “who cares?” or “it doesn’t really matter”. Story is important to us.

First I headed to my bedroom, where sister Tine was busy typing up her latest tale. She didn’t hesitate at all to answer my question, emphatically stating: “A good story is exciting. It has a little bit of everything—something funny, something serious. It’s true to life. It doesn’t make you wish you lived somewhere else. But fairies are OK sometimes. Most mysteries I don’t like. I write my books the way I wish other books had been written.” She turned back to her own story.

This was promising! I left to get my mother’s opinion. It was characteristically brief: “A good story is humorous and true to life.”

I had to dig a little to get taciturn Matt to answer, but once he did, he expressed ideas that are a common thread throughout all the responses I’ve received so far: “ It’s intriguing and holds your interest. It has a good plot and storyline. Not boring!”

I had to giggle when I heard Timmy’s ideas: “No kissing. No walking around talking about nothing. There should be bears and snowballs.” How like all little boys!

This was too good to keep to myself. I was telling Mommy about it when Daddy walked in. Pencil in hand, I again asked “what makes a good story?” He didn’t have to think long: “A good story has human interest. It stirs your emotions.” Probing, I asked which ones. “You’ll get a good laugh. Be moved with compassion.” The conversation took a lofty turn. “A good story shows you the brevity and value of life. You experience life’s joys. A good story takes you to places you’ve never been to meet people you’d not otherwise meet.”

It was the next day before I could ask busy college-going brother A. It was possibly a reflection of his current workload when he immediately said, A good story keeps me awake. It has a combination of good dialogue, mystery, adventure, comedy, tragedy, and love.” (We’re not talking to a 9-year-old now!) “A story has to have all elements of life. Love and hate. You can’t understand one without the other."

Being an interviewer is fun. You can ask all the questions you want, and never have to give any answers. I won’t be so provoking as that. However, I will postpone the moment of my own answer!

It’s time for you, my reader, to respond. What features of a story draw you in? What are things that make you want to read a book again? Negatively, what things about a story repel you? I’m thinking of fiction in particular, but the question could apply to nearly any type of book. Remember, “story” is simply a connected series of events.

The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter



Gene Stratton-Porter didn’t know that this would be the last book she’d write. She couldn’t have known that shortly after finishing the last draft she would die tragically in a trolley-car collision in Los Angeles.

Yet somehow as I read “Keeper” I felt as if she was preaching her last sermon. Anyone who reads Porter’s books knows that her personal beliefs about home, family and life are clearly seen. But perhaps never so thinly clad behind the storybook characters as here. She speaks passionately on topics ranging from belief in God and prayer to healthy eating and premarital chastity.

There’s a lot about bees, too. In fact, the main character, James Lewis MacFarlane, spends a great deal of time tending hives and listening to the fascinating tales of bee life told by his young partner, little Scout.

As the story opens, Jamie is a sickly, disillusioned soldier recuperating from injuries received in the Great War. Although his physical body is very frail, his spiritual body is suffering even more. Bitter at the suffering he’d seen and experienced in war, he has nearly forgotten God and is completely and morbidly absorbed in himself.

Convinced he is about to die, when the chance comes to do one last deed for someone else, he accepts it readily. And this selfless act is the beginning of his Great Adventure.

Often, there is an overly melodramatic and sentimental tone which I dislike in books of this period (1900-1925). Despite this stylistic fault, I found the book to be pleasantly thought provoking and worth my time. I finished reading it more appreciative of nature and with some issues to ponder.

If you’ve never experienced the unique books of Gene Stratton-Porter, start with Laddie or Freckles first. These are the books which I consider to be her masterpieces. Once you’ve read them, don’t neglect The Keeper of the Bees!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Chance to win books and other goodies!

Kim is sponsoring a contest on her blog: Guess how many products will be in the new Vision Forum Catalog, and you could win over $700 worth of merchandise.

VF is a great place to get good books with a Christian worldview. So take a guess...it might be worth your while. :)

Click here for the details.

Friday, September 29, 2006

My sentiments exactly

I am in the mood for a good story. Of course, I am always in the mood for a good story.
--Theodore Roosevelt

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Summer Miscellany

It was a summer of books and tomatoes.

Books first. (Does this reflect my priorities?)

By far the best and most encouraging book of the season was The Lighted Heart by Elizabeth Yates. I have always enjoyed her books, and can appreciate them more than ever, now that I know some of her life story. Early in their marriage, her husband found that, after suffering weak eyes for many years, he would soon become blind. Wanting to make the most of the last remaining sighted months, Elizabeth and Bill moved to a secluded New England farm. During that first year, they made many special memories together as they restored the old farmhouse, cleared the land, planted a garden, and tapped their maple trees. When Bill did eventually lose his sight, they found new challenges ahead, but never lost the joy of living.

In telling her story, Ms. Yates did not gloss over the fact that life is filled with trials, and perhaps this is why I found the book so compelling. The troubles were not seen as roadblocks, but rather as opportunities. One thing I have always admired in Elizabeth Yates’ writing is her ability to describe her characters’ world so that it seems as real in my mind as it must have been in her own. Knowing that her husband was blind gives me insight into how she perfected this skill.

Do Butlers Burgle Banks? Of course they do…at least in this title by P.G. Wodehouse. Sadly, the promising storyline falls flat. No zip, no verve…no hilarious conversations—all things I have come to expect of this author. Perhaps he was at his best when writing about the characters he knew best. Very Good, Jeeves! bears this out. It is almost hard to believe that it was written by the same author.

I don’t always read normal books. Sometimes a good picture book is a refreshing alternative. Like the The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear by Don Wood Since my little sister received it as a baby, it has become one of our most favorite read-aloud books. Bright pictures, a cute storyline, and few words (always a plus!) make it a quite fun to read, especially with one or two small children in your lap.
A new find in children’s books this year was Wait til the Moon is Full by Margaret Wise Brown. It is a good example of the use of repetition.

I love the art of N.C. Wyeth. So of course I was excited to see The Collected Paintings, Illustrations and Murals in a stack of books my dad brought home from the library. Like Norman Rockwell, Wyeth’s paintings always tell a story.

And then there was The Magic of M.C. Escher. If you haven’t seen his prints, look some up. They will amaze you. He was big into optical illusion and the mathematical side of art.

If I do a book by book description, this will become the long instead of short summary. So I’ll move on to the tomatoes. And other vegetables. You can’t make salsa without ‘em. A joint effort on the part of my family to preserve summer’s bounty for a later date concluded with the sight of cabinets filled with jars of salsa, spaghetti sauce, peach jam, apple butter and other tasty things. As you can see by the picture, I don’t always have my nose in a book!


And so concludes the short summary of a short summer. The family school is back into session, and I’m helping by teaching history, writing, vocabulary, music and logic. I will attempt the occasional blog post… but until I figure out a better “schedule” (horrors!), my posting may be quite sporadic.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

10 Questions

1. One book that changed your life: The Bible, first and foremost. Other books, only as they show me how better to be changed through it.

2. One book that you've read more than once: Laddie, by Gene Stratton Porter

3. One book you'd want on a desert island: The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs

4. One book that made you laugh: The Butler Did It, by P.G. Wodehouse

5. One book that made you cry: The Scottish Chiefs, by Jane Porter

6. One book that you wish had been written: It has been: So Much More, by Anna and Elizabeth Botkin. I have been so encouraged by this vision for Christian daughterhood!

If that's not a valid answer, then I'd like to see a fantasy or mystery story written with a consistently Christian worldview.

7. One book that you wish had never been written: The Origin of the Species… by Charles Darwin

8. One book you're currently reading: The Lighted Heart by Elizabeth Yates

9. One book you've been meaning to read: Nicholas Nickelby, by Charles Dickens

10. Now tag four people: I don’t want to pressure anyone. So, if you have an answer to one or more of these questions that you’d like to share, post it in comments.

Thanks to friend Lydia
for sending me this meme.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Studying Shakespeare

I want to get to know this author. The story is told that when the early American pioneers headed West, they took only their most valuable belongings. That included books. Sometimes they would only have room for three: The Bible, The Pilgrim's Progress, and the Works of Shakespeare.

The Bible I have grown up studying. It is a never-ending source of joy and direction. Because it is the living word of God, it never grows old.

The Pilgrim's Progress was one of my favorite childhood adventure stories.

But Shakespeare? He's so hard to read! And when I do, I get bogged down in the dialogue and unfamiliar words. I have seen glimpses of beauty...but they are rare.

That is why I bought Peter Leithart's study guide, Brightest Heaven of Invention. With this in hand, I hope my appreciation of this playwright will increase by leaps and bounds. I get excited just flipping through the book, reading the Christian commentary and anticipating the different writing projects I'll try.

I think I'll start with the Taming of the Shrew. That's a compelling story that I think has some valuable lessons about true femininity imbedded in it.

Have any of my readers "gone before" me on this journey? Do you have any tips or resources to share? Please do!

A Day with Old Friends

Sometimes it’s nice to spend a few hours in nostalgia, to remember old friends and relive the adventures we had together. Pulling out my old grade school notebook the other day, I did just that. I’ve always been a list person; perhaps that’s why I didn’t find it strange to find the tattered sheets filled with the names every single friend and acquaintance I made during those years.

There was Lucy….what wonderful hours we spent together! We haven’t spoken in years, yet I still remember vividly her wild imagination and her love of beautiful things. She introduced me to the poems of Tennyson and great books like Ivanhoe and Ben Hur.

Then there was Carolyn. She was an odd duck! I never quite knew whether to believe her fantastic tales or not. According to her, she had been to nearly every country in the world, with hair-raising escapes at every turn. She had an inquiring mind with extraordinary attention to detail that I loved to imitate.

The memory is a strange thing. Some names seem totally unfamiliar, nary a face or a word recalled in my mind. But others remain clear, the remembrance of our first meeting always green. How could I forget Beatrix and her pets, Marguerite and her love of history, or Robert and his wonderful drawings? These are friends I hold dear; friends I still visit to relive old times.

Meeting old friends isn’t always pleasant. Sometimes, as we grow up, we also grow apart. I remember Franklin. When I was young, he and his group of young friends were my heroes. The independent, adventurous lives they lived were glamorous. But they were also shallow. Our last meeting was bittersweet.

Looking back on my childhood, I see how each one of my friends influenced me. Not all the influences were good. It has taken me years to begin eradicating the errors that some taught me. It may have been unintentional, that passing on of one of the pernicious philosophies of our century, feminism. But the damage was done. I grew up holding conflicting dreams, on the one hand aspiring to be feminine, to one day be a mother, on the other, admiring the self-sufficiency of the independent, rebellious, self-made woman. I realize now the importance of choosing wise friends, ones who will lead me toward Christ and not away from Him.

I spent the rest of the day getting reacquainted with Melody. I was pleased to find, after looking her up, that she was still nearby. A pleasant girl, one who has overcome many hardships, she told me again the beautiful story of her family, and of awakening love. It was late before she finished, and I fell asleep with a smile on my face, thankful to God for the many blessing that He has given me through my friends—books.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers


I did it again. I read a book through almost non-stop without bothering to look up the unfamiliar words.

What can I say? It is an extraordinary author who can keep me more interested in the story than in the words it is comprised of!

Who is this Mr. Death Bredon? Is it purely coincidence that he bears a striking resemblance to Lord Peter Wimsey? And why does he persist in asking so many questions about his predecessor at Pym’s Advertising Agency—the one who was recently fatally injured falling down that old iron staircase?

These are questions the gossips in the copywriter’s room begin to discuss as unusual things begin to happen in their busy little world.

Meanwhile, in another part of London, Chief Inspector Parker has his hands full with a puzzling case of drug smuggling. If only he could discover that elusive criminal mastermind behind it all.

Of course there’s a link between these riddles. It’s a mystery story, after all!

It’s easy for a young person like me to think of the 1920’s as some remote era completely different from our own. A colorful time, but one completely obscured in the mists of the past. It was almost surprising to realize as I read this story that people—and even advertising—haven’t really changed.

If I really wanted to understand this book, I’d read up on cricket.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Posting Schedule...

...or why there isn't more to read on here.

I seem to have worked out a sort of schedule: if I have anything worth saying, it'll get written on Monday and posted on Tuesday. Didn't happen this week! However, I do have several rough drafts going at the moment, as well as a lot of ideas for future posts.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Carry a Big Stick: The Uncommon Heroism of Theodore Roosevelt
By George Grant

I zipped through the biographical portion of this book. Even if the subject matter were not so interesting, I think this author would be able to hold his reader’s attention. He has a wide vocabulary, and the ability to find just the right word to make a sentence come alive. I admire authors who do not stick to the conventional handful of adjectives and who make full use of the language!

Before I read this book, my knowledge of Teddy Roosevelt was rather limited. I pictured a large man in glasses advising the world to “carry a big stick”. I’m not sure if he had a stuffed bear in his hand…but it was certainly nearby!

But there was much more to this man than the caricatured image in my mind. The quality that stood out to me the most as I read of his life was his intense dedication to whatever task lay before him. He lived his life to the full—in fact, he accomplished more than many lives put together. Not only did he hold the widely varied posts of newspaper editor, U.S. Army colonel, governor, and president, but he also authored many books, had a vast knowledge of science, and, perhaps most amazing of all, maintained a healthy and exemplary family life.

Roosevelt’s love and respect for his father was his driving force. His father was his hero, and he spent his life trying to live up to the standard he had set for him.

I finished this book challenged to make the most of every minute, reminded of the primary importance of family, and inspired to read more than ever. (Did you know that Roosevelt read 5 books nearly every week of his life?!)

Thanks again, Peter!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Mixed Metaphors

‘ “Any message I can give him, if he turns up?”

“Yes. You can tell him I am going to break his neck.”

“Break his neck?”

“Yes. Are you deaf? Break his neck.”

I nodded pacifically.

“I see. Break his neck. Right. And if he asks why?”

“He knows why. Because he is a butterfly who toys with women’s hearts and throws them away like soiled gloves.”

“Right ho.” I hadn’t any notion that that was what butterflies did. Most interesting. “Well, I’ll let him know if I run across him.” '

-- P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, chap. 6

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Tyranny of the Page Number

Have you ever experienced the tyranny of the page number? I have—often! I most often am caught in its trap while reading a non-fiction title, but it sometimes manifests itself even in the pages of a storybook.

The trouble usually starts when a vague uncomfortable feeling creeps upon me while reading a particularly interesting passage. It would be nice to stop and think about it, and yet, my eyes begin to skim faster and faster over the page. I begin to feel boxed in—helpless in the grip of words. My breaths become shallow; if I don’t stop and come up for air soon, I know I’ll be sick. And yet, the page number drives me on. There are only a few short chapters left. Those troubling passages can be thought out later. Those mysterious word definitions can wait. If only I reach the end soon, I’ll be able to cross another thing off my list. Is this what drowning feels like?

If only I could find a way to keep my eyes down to a reasonable rate of speed. Maybe then I’d be able to truly learn.

If only I could learn to equate time well spent with lessons learned, to be able to spend time savoring the pleasure of a well-turned phrase. Why is it that the page number still drives me on?

This is the problem that plagues me. This is the malady of a bibliophile.

Not a Tame Lion: The Spiritual Legacy of C.S. Lewis
By Terry W. Glaspey

Negligible as a biography, the strength of this book is in its concise collection of Lewis’ thought. It is a very helpful overview for those who have not yet read many of his books.

Not a Tame Lion is divided into three major sections entitled “His Life”, “His Thought”, and “His Legacy”. Of the three, the second was the most beneficial to me. The author takes a set subject, such as pain, and summarizes Lewis’ view, frequently quoting directly from the source.

Having grown up hearing C.S. Lewis quoted almost to the exclusion of other worthy Christian authors, even in secular settings, I often wondered why he became such a popular writer. I think I understand now. He has an amazing ability to explain complicated issues in a simple way that anyone can understand. His talent for finding new ways to illustrate God’s truth is a gift that not many writers have.

Terry Glaspey has awakened in me a desire to read more of Lewis’ books for myself, thus admirably accomplishing his stated goal.

Many thanks to friend Peter for the loan of his book!

Monday, June 19, 2006

*****This just in*****

Little brother has a blog. Check it out here for the latest in adventure and mystery. ;-)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Footnotes

Does anyone know the correct way to format footnotes/references in HTML?

The only reason my previous post has those little numbers is because I found a little snippet of HTML on the web. Obviously they're not completely right! I need to find out how to link the numbers to the reference below.

Any help would be appreciated!

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

The phrase “gaudy night” is not unique to Dorothy Sayers. Shakespeare employed it in “Antonius and Cleopatra”: “Let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more; Let’s mock the midnight bell.”1

However, Ms. Sayers’ usage is unique in that her title turns on an uncommon meaning of the word “gaudy”. It refers to a celebratory dinner held at Oxford in honor of its alumni. 2She may also be hinting at the Middle English origins of the word, which refer to a prank or trick.3

Although the cover proclaims the book to be “A Lord Peter Wimsey Novel”, the story actually focuses on an investigation led by Harriet Vane. It is not until the last third of the novel that Lord Peter becomes an actively major character.

I say “actively”, because a recurring theme throughout the novel is Harriet’s dilemma of what to do about Peter. It has been five years since he saved her life in Strong Poison, and throughout those years he has persistently proposed marriage to her in every possible way. Just as persistently, she has refused him. And yet he just won’t give up.

As the book begins, Harriet is a bitter, defensive, selfish person trapped by her past. Gradually, she begins to change. She begins to be observant, to focus on someone other that herself, to realize the falsity of her assumptions, and to see the value of Peter’s friendship. Some of the book’s most poignant passages occur at these points.

It is hard to decide whether the love story or the mystery itself comprises the subplot.

The big problem in re the mystery is who is responsible for an obscene reign of terror that has plagued Shrewsbury women’s college, Oxford, ever since the gaudy Harriet attends at the beginning of the book. What seems to be an annoying rash of anonymous letters and destructive pranks turns sinister when it becomes obvious that murder may soon enter the picture.

Things begin to get rather tense with suspicions and nerves running high, and Harriet finds that she cannot handle the case on her own.
For the first time, she feels her need for Peter–and he is not there.

There are several very unsatisfactory elements in the story. The first is Lord Peter’s frank admission that “I have nothing much in the way of religion, or even morality.”4 This is hardly remedied by his subsequent statement that “I do recognize a code of behavior of sorts.”5 And yet, this fictional character is perhaps more honest in this admission than many people today who claim religion but whose lives do not bear evident fruit.

The second unsatisfactory element is the book’s strong feministic overtones. It is hard to tell whether this expresses the author’s true philosophy or whether she is merely using it to her advantage in this story dominated by education and women.

Finally, most unsatisfactory is the ultimate end of the captured criminal: medical rehabilitation. This is not a Biblical method of dealing with obscenity, destruction of property, slander, and attempted murder. “Madness” does not excuse one from the penalty of one’s sin.

Despite these faults, I still found this book completely enthralling, and believe it was worth reading. One thing I especially like about Ms. Sayers’ writing is the frequent references she made to other literature within her books, such as the Bible, Shakespeare, and Edmund Spenser. It gives one a pleasant feeling of knowledge if you happen to be familiar with a passage, and if not, you are spurred on to learn where it came from. If all the references and quotations were meant to be understood by the average reader, then Sayers lived in a much more literate time than our own.

1.Shakespeare, “Antonius and Cleopatra” XI,11, 225, cited in “Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, annotated by Bill Peschel”, http://www.planetpeschel.com/index/wimsey/notes/C16/

2.Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English, http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/gaudy_2?view=uk

3.The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, http://www.bartleby.com/61/9/G0060900.html

4.Sayers, Dorothy L. Gaudy Night (Harper & Row, 1936), 465

5.Ibid., 465


Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

“I just couldn’t put it down” has become cliched—and yet, in this case it’s completely true. This is the first time in my recollection that a book has totally gripped my attention and caused me to identify with a character in a tight spot, wondering with wide eyes and racing heart what will happen next.

Just what is it that makes this mystery so captivating? There are many contributing factors: a tight plot, fast paced writing, clever use of repetitive elements (e.g. roses in chap. 1), witty dialogue… and Lord Peter Wimsey. This last is Ms. Sayers’ triumph. In creating Lord Peter, she has combined detective and English gentleman into a thoroughly believable and charming protagonist. Much of this charm is contained in the dialogue. Wimsey has a whimsical habit of interspersing snippets of classic literature throughout his conversation in creative, and often obscure, ways. (In the first few chapters, several fragments from Alice in Wonderland are used.)

The book begins at court during a murder trial. Harriet Vane, mystery writer, is accused of poisoning her lover after a quarrel. As she has been proven to have arsenic in her possession (ostensibly as part of her research for a novel), all present expect a quick conviction. However, the jury comes to an impasse and a mistrial is declared.

Lord Peter, convinced of Harriet’s innocence, determines to conduct his own investigation. He must find the true murderer, establish a motive and provide evidence…all in thirty short days. Will he be able to do it?

Notes:
  • This book contains some unsavoury elements: mild language, implied fornication, and a s√©ance.
  • An interesting study would be to learn whether the presence of sin in a book necessarily makes it sinful. I think not, considering Biblical narratives. However, one must draw the line somewhere.
  • Questions to ask when encountering passages such as mentioned above: How does the author portray the sin? As attractive and permissible? Or does he write from a Christian perspective, showing sin for what it is: an offense against God and something to be shunned?
  • A unique proposal: “What I mean to say is, when this is all over, I want to marry you, if you can put up with me and all that.” (Lord Peter to Harriet Vane)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Satisfaction

...she had got her mood onto paper-- and this is the release that all writers, even the feeblest, seek for as men seek for love; and, having found it, they doze off happily into dreams and trouble their hearts no further. -Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night p.229

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Nine Tailors:Changes Rung on an Old Theme in Two Short Touches and Two Full Peals by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is the first full length Sayers novel I have read. At first glance it seemed rather unpromising, with its cryptic chapter titles and pages full of the odd vocabulary of campanology. (i.e. bell ringing)

However, my doubts were quickly dispelled as I discovered an exciting story set in a small church parish of rural England.

After a peaceful introduction, a mysterious body is found buried in someone else’s grave. Lord Peter Wimsey is called upon to give his expert advice as a detective, and thus begins a fascinating investigation which, after many twists and turns in plot, leads to a completely surprising ending.

An interesting feature of Ms. Sayers’ writing is the fact that often she takes the time to describe a scene which at the moment seems superfluous, but in the end is pivotal. None of her description is extraneous. Her stories are evidently very well thought out and researched, as well as well written.

This book joins G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday as one of my favorite mysteries.

Lord Peter : A collection of short stories by Dorothy Sayers

My interest in the writings of Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) was piqued several years ago after reading an essay she had written on classical education. ("The Lost Tools of Learning") However, I did not follow up this interest until recently when I discovered that she was a contemporary scholar and associate of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, two authors whom I highly admire. A Christian apologist, playwright and author, she is best known for her detective fiction.

I approached these mysteries tentatively, knowing the reputation the genre has for sensationalism and general gruesomeness, but I was pleased to find the stories exceptionally well written and tactful. Yes, the majority of the cases concern murder, but the focus is not so much on the sin as on the unraveling of clues leading to the criminal being brought to justice.

“Lord Peter” of the title is our aristocratic detective – an unlikely hero sporting a monocle and an innocently ignorant air. He ingeniously solves puzzle after puzzle using his extraordinary powers of observation as well as his understanding of human nature.

These are not stories I would recommend for the young reader, due to the sometimes-disturbing subject matter. (At times rather too dark for my tastes) However, for the mature reader, these are highly entertaining and even intellectual fare: how many authors would subject their readers to paragraphs on end of untranslated French --- or even to such words as “bibulous”, “piscatorial” and “ampelopsis”?!

Purpose Statement

The purpose of this blog is to discuss, study, and comment on a subject near to my heart: the reading of good books. As I do this, I desire to speak, without apology, from an expressly Christian perspective.
As a Christian, every area of my life is subject to the rule of Christ, and I desire to continually grow in this direction. It is my hope that my readers will be inspired to explore more deeply the world of literature, and to learn to see all that they read through the eyes of sacred Scripture.

A corollary purpose of this blog is the improvement of my writing skills. Feeling the extra pressure of a public forum should be a good incentive towards achieving this goal.

This blog is not intended as a random catch-all for meaningless thoughts, or as a laundry-list description of my life. However, be forewarned that I may occasionally stray off-subject!

I welcome comments, (Preferring a dialogue to a monologue!) but of course reserve the right to delete them when the occasion requires.

As you can see, I have rather lofty aspirations for this new venture. But, being only human, and a rather reticent, reserved one at that, it will be an uphill climb. So please bear with me!


For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Galatians 1:10, English Standard Version