Review of Hard Times

What was it about?

Thomas Gradgrind is a schoolteacher in industrial Coketown and a strict adherent of utilitarianism. He and his friend Mr. Josiah Bounderby go to great pains to raise the Gradgrind children on nothing but facts. But not all children are as privileged. Cecilia “Sissy” Jupe comes from quite a different background. Her father is a clown and hardly literate. Mr. Gradgrind is shocked to learn that Sissy does not know the dictionary definition of a horse. When her father runs away for some unknown reason, Mr. Gradgrind decides to raise and educate Sissy himself despite Mr. Bounderby’s disapproval. The latter did not have it so easy when he was growing up. Mr. Bounderby is a prominent banker in Coketown, but he wasn’t born into the lap of luxury. Oh no! He was abandoned by his mother and raised by an abusive grandmother. He ran away from home and lived in the streets. The sewer was his bed. But cold hard facts saved Mr. Bounderby from his misery. He pulled himself up by his bootlaces and became the great banker that he is today. That is the story he tells everyone and not for a minute is he ashamed of telling it. Although the age difference is great, Thomas Gradgrind asks his eldest daughter Louisa to marry Mr. Bounderby. Because sentiments have no place in the Gradgrind household, Louisa has no choice but to accept Bounderby’s proposal. Hard Times by Charles Dickens is a satire on utilitarianism and a critique of the Industrial Age.

What did I think of it?

This is probably my third or fourth time reading Hard Times. Of all the books I have read by Dickens, this one is the best. A common criticism of his works is that the characters (particularly the female characters) are more like caricatures. And while I think that Dickens’ use of caricature is deliberate and a literary motif he employes to expose the dark side of industrial England, I have to agree that his characters aren’t always the most relatable. The villain usually resembles a monster and the female characters are unnaturally sweet. Not so in Hard Times. The characters are all fully fleshed out, and evil is more systemic than embodied in one person. My favorite character was Mrs. Sparsit, Mr. Bounderby’s housekeeper. On the outside she is a proud, proper, and obedient  lady, but despite all appearances, she is quite independent from her master. Mrs. Sparsit has a dignity about her that I respect and love.

Nearly every chapter begins with a commentary on Coketown, utilitarianism, or one of the characters in the story. These sarcastically humorous commentaries complement and enhance the darker plot line. Of course, Dickens’ prose is as elegant as always. If you like social commentaries and/or want to start reading one of Charles Dickens’ shorter novels, I highly recommend Hard Times. The characters are memorable.

Note: Do not purchase the Translatlantic Press edition because the blurb at the back of the book basically tells you the whole plot. Thankfully, this was a reread otherwise I would have been very upset.

Favorite Quote

“Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.”

 

Tolkien’s Favorite Tree Was Felled

It is no secret that J.R.R. Tolkien loved trees. In an interview he admitted that he had always wanted to know what it was like to be a tree. Since watching that interview, I have come to imagine Fangorn as a woody version of J.R.R. Tolkien!

Unfortunately, his favorite tree (a Black Pine  at the Oxford University Botanic Garden) was destroyed by a storm early this year and had to be chopped down. Below is a link to a video showing what happened to the tree.  I actually find it a bit painful/uncomfortable to watch because of how old the tree was (it was at least 200 years old) and its sentimental significance to Tolkien, so watch at your own risk.

http://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/culture/videos-podcasts-galleries/giant-falls-tolkien%E2%80%99s-tree

 

What Have I Been Doing?

I haven’t posted in weeks and I feel like this warrants an explanation. Have I stopped reading? No. In fact, I am reading as much as I have ever read, but the classics that I am currently reading are not ones I necessarily want to review on this blog. Some years ago, I had a blog dedicated to Christian theological works, but for more reasons than one I abandoned it. I have strongly considered starting a new blog next year that is solely dedicated to fiction and non-fiction works revolving around Christology, Ecclesiology, and Ecumenism. I would still have this blog which would (mostly) deal with other kinds of classics. I started re-reading Practice in Christianity by Søren Kierkegaard a few weeks ago and that led me down a different reading path that I expected to be on this month. For those of you who are interested, below is a list of books I am currently reading:

Practice in Christianity by Anti-Climacus (a pseudonym of Søren Kierkegaard)
I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Vol II by Yves Congar (a book by a great Catholic ecumenist of the 20th century)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography by Eberhard Bethge (I will review this one because I think that due to the scope of this book it probably will appeal to non-Christians as well)
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (which I finished last week and loved)

And for this blog, I started re-reading Hard Times by Charles Dickens which I look forward to reviewing. I think it was his best work.

I have many many interests but I am not confused. I “officially” study insects but clearly that’s not all I do. I never want blogging to restrict what I read, but I also want my posts to reflect the type of blog I’m running.

Anyway, I hope to post a review sometime next week for Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

October Meme: Some Of My Favorite Poems

This is the Classics Club meme for October: Let’s talk about classic poetry! Have you got a favorite classic poem? Do you read poetry? Why or why not? // You could also feature a poet or a book of poetry, rather than a poem.

I do read poetry. For an eighth grade assignment I was required to create a poetry notebook centered around a theme. I chose farm animals as my theme and spent the summer before school started finding poems that would fit the theme. At around the same time, I fell in love with Roald Dahl’s books. Roald Dahl always included poetry in his children’s books. So did Lewis Carroll. When I first learned about the assignment I thought, “I don’t like poetry.” But by the end of the summer I fell in love with poetry. Not all of it, of course. No one loves every novel or every short story. No one should expect to love every poem. But I fell in love with poetry because that summer I had found, for the first time in my life, poems that I enjoyed reading. I memorized my favorites and recited them to my English teacher before class. I am convinced that people who say they don’t like poetry have not yet found the right poem. When they do find the right one (notice that I didn’t say “if”) they will know. Dissecting a poem to find its hidden meaning certainly has value but the dissection can be taken too far. I suspect that the reasons that some people avoid poetry are similar to the reasons some people avoid reading the classics.

Anyway, I will share some of my favorites below. Some, all, or none of these poems may interest you. But they are near and dear to my heart. If you are interested in hearing my thoughts about any of the poems in this post, you can ask me in the comments.

Let’s start with some fun, children’s poetry.

The Pig

In England once there lived a big
And wonderfully clever pig.
To everybody it was plain
That Piggy had a massive brain.
He worked out sums inside his head,
There was no book he hadn’t read.
He knew what made an airplane fly,
He knew how engines worked and why.
He knew all this, but in the end
One question drove him round the bend:
He simply couldn’t puzzle out
What LIFE was really all about.
What was the reason for his birth?
Why was he placed upon this earth?
His giant brain went round and round.
Alas, no answer could be found.
Till suddenly one wondrous night.
All in a flash he saw the light.
He jumped up like a ballet dancer
And yelled, ‘By gum, I’ve got the answer! ‘
‘They want my bacon slice by slice
‘To sell at a tremendous price!
‘They want my tender juicy chops
‘To put in all the butcher’s shops!
‘They want my pork to make a roast
‘And that’s the part’ll cost the most!
‘They want my sausages in strings!
‘They even want my chitterlings!
‘The butcher’s shop! The carving knife!
‘That is the reason for my life! ‘
Such thoughts as these are not designed
To give a pig great piece of mind.
Next morning, in comes Farmer Bland,
A pail of pigswill in his hand,
And piggy with a mighty roar,
Bashes the farmer to the floor…
Now comes the rather grisly bit
So let’s not make too much of it,
Except that you must understand
That Piggy did eat Farmer Bland,
He ate him up from head to toe,
Chewing the pieces nice and slow.
It took an hour to reach the feet,
Because there was so much to eat,
And when he finished, Pig, of course,
Felt absolutely no remorse.
Slowly he scratched his brainy head
And with a little smile he said,
‘I had a fairly powerful hunch
‘That he might have me for his lunch.
‘And so, because I feared the worst,
‘I thought I’d better eat him first.’

- Roald Dahl

You Are Old, Father William

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door –
Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
“I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment – one shilling the box –
Allow me to sell you a couple?”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak –
‑ray how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose –
What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you downstairs!”

- Lewis Carroll

in Just -

in Just-
spring        when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles        far       and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s
spring

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far       and       wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and
it’s
spring
and
      the

           goat-footed                                         

balloonMan      whistles
far
and
wee                 

- E.E. Cummings

And now for the more “mature” poetry:

Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love–
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me–
Yes!–that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we–
Of many far wiser than we–
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling–my darling–my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

- Edgar Allan Poe

Where’s the Poet?

Where’s the Poet? show him! show him,
Muses nine! that I may know him.
‘Tis the man who with a man
Is an equal, be he King,
Or poorest of the beggar-clan
Or any other wonderous thing
A man may be ‘twixt ape and Plato;
‘Tis the man who with a bird,
Wren or Eagle, finds his way to
All its instincts; he hath heard
The Lion’s roaring, and can tell
What his horny throat expresseth,
And to him the Tiger’s yell
Come articulate and presseth
On his ear like mother-tongue.
– John Keats

One I just discovered while reading Baby by Patricia MacLachlan:

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.

The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

- Edna St. Vincent Millay

And finally, three Christian-themed poems by C.S. Lewis. They were mostly (if not all) published posthumously:

Legion

Lord, hear my voice, my present voice I mean,
Not that which may be speaking an hour hence
(For I am Legion) in an opposite sense,
And not by show of hands decide between
The multiple factions which my state has seen
Or will see. Condescend to the pretence
That what speaks now is I; in its defence
Dissolve my parliament and intervene.

Thou wilt not, though we asked it, quite recall
Free will once given. Yet to this moment’s choice
Give unfair weight. Hold me to this. O strain
A point – use legal fictions; for if all
My quarrelling selves must bear an equal voice,
Farewell, thou has created me in vain.

- C.S. Lewis

The Apologist’s Evening Prayer

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more
From all the victories that I seemed to score;
From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf
At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;
From all my proofs of Thy divinity,
Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

- C.S. Lewis

After Prayers, Lie Cold

Arise my body, my small body, we have striven
Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven.
Arise small body, puppet-like and pale, and go,
White as the bed-clothes into bed, and cold as snow,
Undress with small, cold fingers and put out the light,
And be alone, hush’d mortal, in the sacred night,
– A meadow whipt flat with the rain, a cup
Emptied and clean, a garment washed and folded up,
Faded in colour, thinned almost to raggedness
By dirt and by the washing of that dirtiness.
Be not too quickly warm again. Lie cold; consent
To weariness’ and pardon’s watery element.
Drink up the bitter water, and breathe the chilly death;
Soon enough comes the riot of our blood and breath.

- C.S. Lewis

 

Review of The Neverending Story

What was it about?

Ten year old Bastian Balthazar Bux runs away from a gang of bullies from school and finds shelter in an old bookstore. There, he meets a bookseller named Carl Conrad Coreander who, instead of comforting the child, hurls insulting remarks at Bastian. But Carl is suddenly interrupted by a phone call. During the time the bookseller spends answering the call, Bastian steals a book titled The Neverending Story (I underline the title of the book Bastian reads to distinguish it from the title of the book we are reading). Because classes have already begun for the day, the boy decides to play hooky. He hides himself in the school attic and begins reading the book he stole.

The Neverending Story is not like any other fantasy book Bastian has ever read. Not only are the creatures extremely bizarre, Bastian soon discovers that he has an important role to play in the story. The Nothing is destroying Fantastica and is somehow responsible for the mysterious illness of the Childlike Empress. A child warrior with greenish skin and purple hair named Atreyu has been chosen by the empress to defeat the Nothing, but he is only given a magical medallion, the Auryn, for protection. Atreyu is ordered to leave his weapons behind. They will not help him in his quest.

Along the way, Atreyu’s horse dies in the Swamps of Sadness and is replaced by a luckdragon named Falkor. Falkor and Atreyu try to find a cure for the Childlike Empress’ illness but to no avail. The child warrior returns to the empress and admits his failure, but the empress has not given up hope. She knows of one who can save Fantastica, and he is the reader of The Neverending Story. The only person who can save Fantastica is Bastian Balthazar Bux, but unless he gives the empress a new name, the Nothing will annihilate the world. Will Bastian accept the mission?

What did I think of it?

Most people, I suspect, have never read The Neverending Story (translated from German by Ralph Manheim) but have at least seen the film adaptation. As a child, I really enjoyed watching the movie. Falkor is such a beautiful creature.

How can a child not like a movie with a creature that looks like this? I recently learned that two sequels were also made, but everyone I’ve talked to agrees that they are terrible. Michael Ende, the author of The Neverending Story, actually disliked all the films. He felt that the filmmakers had altered the message of his book. As I have not seen any of the sequels, I cannot  comment on Ende’s criticism, but I certainly expected a different kind of story when I picked up the book. The first third of The Neverending Story is fast-paced and covers the material portrayed in the first movie. Bastian learns of his mission. But the rest of the book is quite different from the beginning in tone as well as in pacing. Suddenly, The Neverending Story ceases to be a lighthearted action story and becomes darker and much more philosophical in nature. Once Bastian arrives in Fantastica, the action slows down and much emphasis is placed on the boy’s interior transformation. The creatures are just as bizarre, but they serve an important purpose in the story. At the heart of The Neverending Story is the question, “What sort of a leader will Bastian be?” Are there limitations to what Bastian can do? The way this book was constructed reminds me so much of Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince). The first part is very childlike and whimsical. The final parts deal with more mature themes. I loved The Neverending Story. Good children’s literature, I believe, is loved by children and better appreciated by adults. A children’s fantasy book becomes a classic if it does more than tell a fun story. Michael Ende approached his books the way C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien approached their works. Ende’s objection to being called a children’s author reminds me a lot of Tolkien’s comments about children’s literature in his essay On Fairy Stories.

In 1985, Michael Ende wrote, “One may enter the literary parlor via just about any door, be it the prison door, the madhouse door, or the brothel door. There is but one door one may not enter it through, which is the nursery door. The critics will never forgive you such. The great Rudyard Kipling is one to have suffered this. I keep wondering to myself what this peculiar contempt towards anything related to childhood is all about.”

The comparison to Rudyard Kipling is quite accurate. The Neverending Story (1975) is very much like the children’s books of early 20th century authors. It deals with themes of power, wisdom, and loss. I recommend this book to people young and old. It is excellent!

Favorite Quotes

“Every real story is a never ending story.”

“When it comes to controlling human beings there is no better instrument than lies. Because, you see, humans live by beliefs. And beliefs can be manipulated. The power to manipulate beliefs is the only thing that counts.”

 

September in Review

Smileys For BlogSeptember Reads

In September I read 6 books. Two of them were in French. I have plans to read at least one French work each month.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (a reread)- :) :) :) :)

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Book 1 of the Earthsea Cycle; I will review this book if I decide to continue with the series) – :) :) :) :)

L’Annonce Faite A Marie (The Annunciation to Mary) by Paul Claudel – :) :) :)

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (I will try to review this soon) – :) :) :)

Courrier Sud (Southern Mail) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – :) :) :) :)

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (Fantastic! Review is forthcoming) – :) :) :) :) :)

 

Plans For October

Baby by Sarah McLachlan

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (Book 1 of the Mistborn trilogy; it will probably take me a couple of months to read.)

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

Some short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Roald Dahl in honor of Halloween (which I actually don’t care much about. I just like creepy stories.)

Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory (for a read-along hosted by Jean @ Howling Frog Books. The read-along ends mid-December, so I have time).

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (for the Newbery Medal Challenge)

Vol de Nuit (Night Flight) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Notice how my reading plans change from month to month even though I don’t normally read all (or sometimes any) of the books I have planned. Any TBR I post is extremely tentative. It’s definitely not binding. It’s merely a reminder that I either own or have borrowed books I have yet to read. I am also saying that there are certain books that I am currently excited to read.

Review of Courrier Sud (Southern Mail)

What was it about?

Courrier Sud by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry follows an aviator named Bernis along a flight route spanning half the world. This lyrical narrative is centered on Bernis’ disappearance in the Saharan Desert. An unidentified narrator attempts to describe the young man’s experience of being a pilot for the French airmail service. Along the way, Bernis meets and romances a married woman who has heartaches of her own. Courrier Sud is  a semi-autobiographical story about the joys and sorrows of flight.

What did I think of it?

I am currently reading through the writings of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Courrier Sud, published in 1929, was the author’s first novel. Through elegant and powerful prose, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry describes the life of a pilot as being at once calm and turbulent. While a pilot constantly dreams of traveling, he doesn’t really have a home. He only has the sun and the clouds to keep him company. Just as the pilot arrives at his destination, he is sent away on another mission. He is a nomad of the skies.

Courrier Sud is a wonderful introduction to Saint-Exupéry’s writings as it contains themes that are also explored in his later works. It is clear that the author has a keen ear for language. Sentences flow as smoothly as the flights his characters go on. If you enjoy reading literary fiction, you will almost certainly appreciate Courrier Sud.

Favorite Quote

Déjà s’était dénouée en lui toute sa ferveur. Il se disait : « Tu ne peux rien me donner de ce que je désire. » Et pourtant son isolement était si cruel qu’il eut besoin d’elle. 

[My translation]: Already, in him, all passion had come undone. [Bernis] said to himself, “You cannot give me anything I desire.” And yet his solitude was so agonizing that he needed her.