And With Your Spirit

Book: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction (Classic #2)

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

This was February’s classic. I remembered that the miniseries from the eighties introduced us to Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons, but beyond that I had no sense of the story. After I read it, I wasn’t sure I had a true sense of it yet.

Charles Ryder, serving in WWII, comes across an estate the army will commandeer for wartime use. It’s Brideshead, the country seat of the Marchmains, with whom Charles was intensely involved as a younger man. Seeing the home recalls those memories.

Charles’ first memories are of Sebastian Flyte, second son in the Marchmain family, whom he met at Oxford. Sebastian is considered charmingly flamboyant, with his love of Nanny, his preoccupation with his teddy bear Aloysius, his ambivalence about his family, his devotion to his Catholic faith, his dedication to having a good time, and his indifference to the feelings of others. He and Charles form a powerful attachment to each other, but one that is unequal. Charles is a devoted follower of Sebastian, but Sebastian’s regard for Charles seems dependent on Charles’ usefulness to Sebastian.

During their university years, the two are essentially inseparable, spending time both at school and during the holidays together. Their friendship reaches a climax when Charles comes to Brideshead and meets the rest of the Flytes. Lady Marchmain is an extraordinarily devout Catholic, running the family home since her husband has abandoned her and is living in Italy with his mistress. Julia is a debutante, bent on securing an engagement to an up-and-coming Canadian. Bridey, the eldest son, is rather non-descript, seemingly in his own world. Young Cordelia is a bit of a mischief maker. During this visit, Sebastian’s love of alcohol becomes pronounced to everyone. When Charles does not rein him in, Lady Marchmain very politely banishes Charles from her home.

Some years later, Charles, indifferently married to the sister of a school friend, re-encounters Julia, who indeed married her Canadian. Sebastian is living in a monastery in Africa, trying to do good with his life and to refrain from drink. Cordelia is serving as a nurse during the war in Spain, and Bridey is engaged to be married. Lady Marchmain has died. Julia and Charles begin a passionate affair, one that is to last several years until their divorces can be finalized. Lord Marchmain comes home to Brideshead to die, but not before reconciling himself to the Catholic faith he abandoned. After her father’s death, Julia realizes that an unsanctioned marriage to Charles is something she is not willing to contemplate. She ends their affair, and when revisiting Brideshead (with the army) the agnostic Charles begins to show an interest in God and faith.

On the surface, simply as a story, this book was just an average tale of the British aristocracy with an outsider admiring them and wanting to be part of their world. And as such, it merited my three-book rating. However, I figured there had to be more than meets the eye, or why else would this be regarded as a classic? So, of course, I did a little research.

Before I commenced that, however, I did have a more decided opinion about one aspect of the book. The Catholicism of the Marchmains is prevalent, and as a Catholic, I didn’t think the faith was portrayed in a particularly flattering light. This is because we encounter it through Charles’ eyes, Charles who isn’t a person of faith and who seems to see Catholicism as something that gets in the way of daily living. I thought this was rather odd, since I knew that Mr. Waugh converted to Catholicism. I figured this book was either written before his conversion or perhaps he became disenchanted with the faith and was using this work to kind of take a step back.

And this is where the research comes in. I learned that this book was indeed written after Mr. Waugh’s conversion. In fact, this book is supposed to be an expression of the Catholic faith, dwelling on the themes of reconciliation and divine grace. Now that I know that, I can see those elements in the book, but obviously they were lost on me during my actual reading of the story. Three of the key Marchmain members (Sebastian, Lord Marchmain, and Julia) all experience various forms of reconciliation. After a lifetime of disbelief, Charles comes to faith through divine grace.

When I was at school, I certainly remember reading various works of literature in my English classes, learning about the imagery, themes, etc. I often wondered then how much of these elements the authors actually intended and how much future analysts assumed. It’s clear that whatever elements were intended or not, it’s likely I would have missed them (as I just did) if I hadn’t been learning about the books as well as reading the stories. When I read fiction I tend to get lost in the story, as I certainly did here. In learning about the writing of this book, I appreciated it a bit more, since I now also appreciate Mr. Waugh’s craftsmanship. It’s a shame that I didn’t have a little more of the Holy Spirit whispering in my ear as I was reading, pointing out what in retrospect seems a bit obvious. Et cum spiritu tuo.

We Are Not Amused

Book: We Two by Gillian Gill

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: One Book.jpg

As a dedicated Anglophile, there are many things I love about England. It all started with that puzzle of Henry VIII and his wives my mum brought back from London, but now it encompasses Jane Austen, Shakespeare, the monarchy in general, tea, the accent, the expressions, the place names and much more. In the past few years, I’ve added a love and interest in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. When I came across this book, I eagerly looked forward to learning more about them as a couple. Soon, however, my eagerness was only about finally finishing one of the most dreadful biographies/histories ever.


This book was marketed as a biography of the two of them—a history of their partnership, as it were, filled with information about their love, their visions, their rivalries, their disputes, their virtues, and their shortcomings. This book was essentially a biography of Albert that touched on his relationship with Victoria. Its purpose was to expose Albert as a power-hungry misogynist who cared only for his own agenda. So much for marketing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to go on record to say that I was and still am unabashedly a Prince Albert fan. In reading a good biography of him, I would be prepared to learn about his weaknesses as well as his strengths. I know that we are all a mix of light and dark and I can take the idea of learning about parts of his character that might not be so admirable. But a book that is a subjective, anachronistic, opinion piece, vindictive in tone and lacking in credentials has no business calling itself a biography or a history.

Where to begin? Miss Gill begins with the relationship whose consequences led to the very existence of Victoria. This would be Princess Charlotte of Wales and her husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. Leopold, as Charlotte’s widower, would become uncle to both Albert and Victoria and one of their most trusted advisors. Miss Gill has no particular love for Leopold, commenting on some of his good points, but elaborating mostly on his ambition for both himself and his family. She clumps the Coburg men all into this same mold, often bestowing on them her favorite epithet—misogynist.

When she calls the Coburg men (including Leopold, Albert, as well as Albert’s brother and father, both Ernests) misogynists, she gives examples. Most of the examples encompass the idea that these men did not think Victoria, or women in general, were capable of making decisions free from emotion; that women were not equipped intellectually for the ruling of a nation; that women were just not as good as men.

I mentioned this fact to my friend Natalie, a second-generation wordsmith. She questioned Miss Gill’s use of the word misogynist. Ever the librarian, I looked it up. Merriam-Webster defines a misogynist as a person who hates women. This is not how Miss Gill used the word. There was no hatred in how the Coburg men viewed women. Yes, perhaps they thought women were inferior to men, but that is quite different from hatred. How can I give credence to a book whose author can’t even correctly use words?

It only got worse.

Adding to the lack of credibility was the marked absence of authoritative notations. Yes, notes did appear in the text, and yes, there was a Notes section at the end of the book. But in looking at the various notes, I discovered that these tended to be explanatory rather than referential. Miss Gill might use a note to explain about Salic law or traditions within the Royal Family, but a great number of these notes had no source. Even odder, there was no bibliography. So where did her information come from? If she simply made it up how is anyone to know? Is the reader just supposed to trust that her information is accurate? That’s hardly going to happen when I can’t trust her to use words correctly.

While I am not willing to trust Miss Gill, the possibility does exist that her information is correct. For argument’s sake, assume that it is. Historical information must be seen in the context of its contemporary time. A true studier of history will realize that what was said and done in a different time and place may not hold up over the test of time. Meaning that the sensibilities we have now can often reveal actions, attitudes, and social norms of the past to be offensive and repressive. With 21st century vision, Miss Gill looks at the past and those in it (particularly the Coburg men) with untampered venom. Yes, the men were sexist. Yes, they believed themselves superior to the women in their lives, all women in fact. Miss Gill condemns the Coburg men in particular for these beliefs. Yet, these were the beliefs of men in general at the time. It was a sexist time and place.  Why should the Coburgs have been different from anyone else? I may not like how they thought, but I can’t truly blame them for being products of their society. Miss Gill, however, has no problems doing so.

She also has the temerity to try to do my thinking for me. Actually, not only for me as the reader, but also for the real people she wrote about. This book is chock full of what Albert and Victoria thought, how they perceived things, and why they acted as they did. And just how does Miss Gill know this? She does upon occasion refer to letters and other documents written by Albert, Victoria, Leopold, Lord Palmerston, etc., but Miss Gill even more rarely actually reproduces them. So again, we have to take her word for what these historical figures even said, and then take her word yet again for interpretations of what they said.

I could go on, but this post is long enough. I thought I was reading a well-researched study that offered insight to one of the most captivating partnerships of the 19th century. Instead, what I got was an op-ed piece designed to smear one partner without even elevating the other. I got a modern-day view on an historical relationship with no regard for context. I got one person’s interpretation with not nearly enough detail to justify that interpretation. To quote the immortal Charlie Brown, “I got a rock.”

I seriously doubt that Her Majesty would approve.

Two for One

Book: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpg

A few years ago I read Miss Vanderpool’s Newbery-winning Moon Over Manifest and loved it. So I eagerly anticipated reading her next book. While there were certain things I loved about it, there was one overriding issue that I had trouble with.

Jack Baker has grown up in Kansas. His father came from a Navy family, but settled down to farming when he married Jack’s mother. When WWII breaks out, Jack’s dad returns to the Navy, coming home only when his wife dies unexpectedly of an aneurism not long before the war’s end. He sends Jack to a boarding school in Maine, near where the Captain is stationed, and returns to the war.

Jack is ambivalent about fitting in. He gets along with the boys but does not feel a need to form any particular friendships. He is intrigued, however, by Early Auden. Early is small, slight, and odd. He is an orphan who does not come to class often, which is allowed by the school authorities, spends his time working on his own projects, listens to certain types of music depending on the days of the week, and is obsessed with the number pi. Just about all the boys row, and land-locked Jack decides to learn with Early teaching him. As the two work together to repair an unused and broken down boat, Jack learns that Early sees Pi as a character and has created a story he claims is in the digits. Early also claims that his brother Fisher, famous at the school for his heroics and sculling exploits, has not died in the war as notified by the army. Jack believes that Early is deluding himself and after gently arguing the point a few times, decides to let Early believe what he wants.

When Fall break comes, Jack looks forward to his father’s visit. Their relationship has become strained, but Jack is hoping they can work things out. The Captain sends a last minute message that he is unable to make it. Angry at his dad, Jack decides to accompany Early on his quest to find Pi (a distinguished math professor claims that pi’s digits will end—Early equates this with Pi being lost). The two set out in Fisher’s old boat, the Maine, into the woods on their adventure.

This is where I became uneasy in the story. After a promising beginning with interesting characters and relationships, it seemed that the tale was going to turn survivalist, which I abhor. Fortunately, I was wrong about that. However, the adventure the boys take is the issue I have with the story.

Interspersed with Jack and Early’s story is the story Early has created about Pi. Pi has a fiercely loving mother who taught him to gaze at stars and navigate by them to prepare him for a journey. On this journey, he loses his boat, wrangles with pirates, becomes a member of a village, meets an ancient woman, gets lost in a maze, and has to negotiate his way through catacombs to be reunited with his father. What bothered me about the book was that the adventure Early and Jack take mirrors this story that Early has already created. Pi’s mother is Jack’s mother, Early and Jack lose the Maine to pirates, and they stay a while with a man called Gunnar who is kind to them and outfits them for the woods in exchange for some help they give him. They meet a hundred-year-old woman who is waiting for her long lost son to come home so she can die; they get lost in the woods, and have to negotiate caves. Along the way, they actually find Early’s brother Fisher, reclaim the Maine, and come back to school to meet Captain Baker who tries to repair his relationship with Jack.

There is a reliance on coincidence that strains credulity. At the end, you learn that Early actually did have some legitimate reasons for believing Fisher was alive, but the fact that they meet up with him on this trip? Their quest is in fact Pi’s—one that Early previously created? It was just too much for me. I actually liked their journey, the ups and downs of their relationship, the evolving understanding between Jack and his dad, and the realistic treatment of Early. Clearly, Early is somewhere on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, but that would not have been recognized in 1945, and is not in the book. He is regarded as odd and eccentric and that feels right. It seems a shame that with so much right in this book, Miss Vanderpool interjects this one aspect of coincidence that threatens to sully this interesting work she created.

In Moon Over Manifest, Miss Vanderpool effortlessly slips from one time period to another, weaving two stories to make a cohesive whole. In Navigating Early, she employs a similar technique to considerably lesser effect. Here she weaves two stories that are essentially the same one and in the process weakens her story’s credibility.

I Heart Atticus

Book: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction (Classic #1)

Rating: One Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpgOne Book.jpg


And no, I don’t mean a character on Downton Abbey. I mean Mr. Finch. I think I have a serious crush going on here.

First of all, I realize it’s been over a month since I blogged, but honestly, February was not a good month for me. Here’s hoping that March brings better tidings.

If nothing else, it brings the first entry toward my goal of reading 12 classics this year. And what an auspicious start it is.

Miss Lee’s story is so well-known that I’m not going to delve too much into the plot. In the prewar (WWII, that is) south, small town lawyer and widower Atticus Finch is raising his two children, Jem and Scout, while being a quiet model of a true gentleman—he treats everyone with respect, steps up to support his community from time to time, and is unafraid to say and do what he thinks is right. He is asked by the court to defend a young black man accused of raping a young white woman. Because he zealously represents his client, he and his family endure scorn, bullying, and retaliation.

I had a very vague sense of the book before I read it. I knew it was from Scout’s point of view and that she was a curious and intrepid tomboy who rather relished challenging anyone and everyone who came her way. I was right about that, but after reading this book I’m not convinced she is the main character. We experience the novel through Scout’s eyes, but this is Atticus’ story.

His is a noble story to tell. In his unobtrusive, gentle, and unassuming way, Atticus is the soul and conscience of the book. He knows his client Tom Robinson is innocent, and he knows that no matter what he does, the jury will convict Tom. Rather than give up or make a half-hearted defense, Atticus quietly yet relentlessly pokes holes in the prosecution’s case. He implies another theory of what actually happened. He eloquently makes an appeal for justice for Tom. He bravely faces the persecution meted out to him by the majority of townspeople. When the jury pronounces their inevitable verdict, he takes it with dignity and promises Tom that he will continue to seek justice for him. He takes a measure of comfort in one thing—he made the jury think. Everyone (the jury included) expected them to convict in a matter of minutes, but instead they took several hours to declare Tom guilty.

Many lawyers have named Atticus Finch as their hero or their inspiration for entering the legal profession. I totally get that. Critics have complained that Atticus was too passive and that he should have been more revolutionary in his representation of Tom. To them I say that you don’t get Mr. Finch. He likely accomplished more for civil rights in his corner of the world with his calm, peaceful demeanor than he could have if he had breathed fire. Sometimes a cause needs a Sam Adams, a Nat Turner, or a Michael Collins. But causes also need a Martin Luther King, a Mahatma Gandhi, or a Nelson Mandela.

Not that Atticus (or any of the gentlemen mentioned above) is perfect.  He has his faults as a father and a brother. Miss Lee weaves his shortcomings among his virtues in such an organic way that we see him for the authentic man he is. Miss Lee applies this same masterful approach to the plot itself. Atticus has right on his side so we expect him to triumph. Realistically he would not and does not. This story is told by Scout, so we see the effect Atticus has on her as a father, and we get to appreciate what he accomplishes more objectively than if he were telling his own story. The actual events of the final climax between Jem and Mr. Ewell are unclear. In deliberately leaving this scene ambiguous, Miss Lee lets readers come to their own conclusions instead of doing their thinking for them. In short, this was an incredible literary achievement, and it is no wonder Miss Lee took home a Pulitzer.

Obviously, I loved this book. It has set the bar extremely high for the rest of my classics. However wonderful they and their characters might be, Atticus Finch will always hold a special place in my heart.