Archive for June, 2011


An Unconventional Love Story: Part I

I’ve decided to triple dip with my next few posts.  Technically the three books I’ll be blogging form one story, Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset.  But seeing as how the story runs over 1,000 pages, and my March/April dry spell has me just barely on pace to meet the goal, I’ve decided to count each of the three books within Kristin Lavransdatter as one post, and I don’t feel too bad about this.  I would do the same thing with The Lord of the Rings, which, contrary to popular opinion, is not a trilogy – Tolkien intended it as one story in three books/six parts.  At any rate, enough hemming and hawing and rationalizing my blogging practices – it’s my blog (well, partly) and I can do with it what I want. 😛

I remember years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, seeing a reference to Kristin Lavransdatter.  The book sounded intriguing – a relatively unknown work by a Danish-born Norwegian convert to Catholicism plumbing the depths of questions about love, marriage, desire, and shame.  Though I was intrigued, as with so many other books, I filed it away and never got back to it.  But the prompting of my co-blogger, along with other factors, led me finally to pick it up (on Kindle, thank God – much lighter than the physical book 😉 ).  I just finished the first part, The Bridal Wreath, last night, and all I can say is: wow, thanks, C!  This is one of the most profound books I have read this year, perhaps in my life, and I’m only through the first part.

The story centers on the title character, Kristin Lavransdatter, the daughter of a medieval Norwegian farmer, Lavrans (medieval Norwegian last names were not especially creative, consisting of the father’s name followed by sohn [son] or datter [daughter]).  We meet Kristin at a young age, and the first part of the story follows her growth up to her wedding night.  The path toward this night is anything but simple, though.  In her early maidenhood, her father Lavrans finds a fitting match and arranges a betrothal.  Though she wants to follow her father’s will, it pains Kristin, as she has deep affection for her childhood friend Arne.  A series of mishaps leads Kristin to ask her father to delay the betrothal ceremony so that she can spend a year in a convent.  During this year Kristin meets and falls in love with a gentleman (and I use the term loosely) named Erlend.  Unbeknownst to Kristin when she first falls for him, Erlend has already sired two children in an adulterous relationship.  One can easily imagine how this goes over in medieval society.  Nevertheless, even once she has learned this information, Kristin remains firm in her desire for and love of Erlend, to the point of breaking off the betrothal her father had arranged despite the pain it causes him.  The first book ends on Kristin’s wedding night, which turns out to be anything but the storybook wedding she had longed for.

I’ve deliberately left some of the story’s details vague so as not to give away too many spoilers (though it’ll be hard to keep this up as I post on the next two parts of the story).  Suffice it to say that Unset’s novel is one of the most profound meditations on the nature of love, marriage, desire, shame, guilt, and family loyalty, among other themes, that I have ever read.  The time of arranged marriages in western civilization is long past – most people today, at least in the west, choose their spouses, and usually do so out of love.  Unset’s story explores how the nature of desire sometimes clashed with the practice of arranged marriages in medieval society.  In the process, she suggests that marrying for love in terms of affection is not necessarily the best recipe for success.  There is no doubt throughout the story that Kristin has deep affection for Erlend, even after his past catches up with him and impinges on both of them.  Several characters in the story wonder aloud whether the love Kristin and Erlend have for one another can overcome his track record.  Though I’ll have to wait to read the next two parts to see for certain, the early indications are not promising.  But Kristin Lavransdatter is not simply about Kristin and Erlend.  Unset also masterfully shows the effect of this relationship on Kristin’s other relationships.  Whereas Kristin enjoyed a deep and tender relationship with her father during her childhood years, her decision to break off the betrothal he had arranged, and particularly for an adulterer who has sired two children out of wedlock, puts an intense strain on her relationship with Lavrans.  Perhaps most intriguingly, this is not because of some antiquated commitment to arranged marriages.  At one point in the story, Lavrans tells his daughter that, had Arne asked for her hand, Lavrans would have approved.  Indeed, Lavrans himself wrestles with the circumstances of his own marriage to Kristin’s mother, as each of them had affections for someone else.  Nevertheless, they both followed through with their parents’ commitment, and managed to sustain a successful marriage.

On a purely thematic level, then, this is a powerful book (so far, though I doubt the rest of the tale will disappoint), and this is to say nothing of Unset’s prose, which goes down like a nice glass of Pinot Grigio.  I wish I could say more, but this post is already approaching my (arbitrary) limit, and so, until I read the next part, I will simply say: read The Bridal Wreath.  It will give you much food for thought on one of the most important questions we all face, and it just might challenge the way you think about love and marriage.

Twenty-seven down, (at least) twenty-five to go.

Ta,
J

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Inklings Predecessor, Take Two

Having enjoyed The Princess and the Goblin, this past weekend I decided to pick up another MacDonald book, The Princess and Curdie.  This latter book serves as a sequel to the former, but unlike most sequels, it is at least as good as, if not better than, the original.  Whereas the first book focuses primarily on the eponymous princess, Irene, the second follows Curdie, the boy hero from the first story.

At the beginning of the story, about a year after the events in The Princess and the Goblin, Curdie is slowly drifting away from his former virtue.  One day he shoots an innocent white pigeon with his bow and arrow simply to test his skill.  Upon picking up the (nearly) dead bird in his hand, he is struck with remorse, and at once he runs to the king’s former residence to confess to the princess’s great-great-grandmother, to whom the bird belongs and who features even more prominently in this story than in the first.  Curdie’s act of repentance is the first step toward his rehabilitation, and Princess Irene the elder (she shares the name with her great-great-granddaughter) then sends him on a quest.  Curdie is not alone in his quest, but rather receives help from a strange and motley group of creatures, as well as Princess Irene the younger, with whom he is reunited.  As in most fairy tales, Curdie manages to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, but, without giving away the ending completely, it does not end in the typical fairy tale ending.  Rather, the book ends on a note in keeping with MacDonald’s vision of reality, virtue, and society.

The Princess and Curdie was one of my favorite books I’ve read this year for a number of reasons.  MacDonald’s depictions of natural settings are rich and evocative.  Take his description of mountains toward the beginning of the story:

“I will try to tell you what [mountains] are.  They are portions of the heart of the earth that have escaped from the dungeon below, and rushed up and out.  For the heart of the earth is a great wallowing mass, not of blood, as in the hearts of men and animals, but of glowing hot, melted metals and stones.  And as our hearts keep us alive, so that great lump of heat keeps the earth alive: it is a huge power of buried sunlight – that is what it is.”

No disenchanted universe, this.  Moreover, MacDonald has a keen insight into the human condition and the nature of virtue.  The story’s symbolism is religious, and more specifically Christian, through and through, though without being overly preachy or moralizing.  Take his description of kingship:

“He was a real king – that is, one who ruled for the good of his people and not to please himself, and he wanted the silver not to buy rich things for himself, but to help him to govern the country, and pay the ones that defended it from certain troublesome neighbours, and the judges whom he set to portion out righteousness among the people, that so they might learn it themselves, and come to do without judges at all.”

The story is also darker than the first.  Though Curdie’s act of violence toward the beginning of the story is condemned, MacDonald was by no means a pacifist.  This tale has more than its fair share of battles, sometimes told in gruesome detail.

As with The Princess and the Goblin, this book made it abundantly clear why Chesteron, Lewis, Tolkien, et al. were so indebted to MacDonald.  Though each of their stories is set in a different world, their characters all inhabit the same moral universe.  Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chesterton had these stories in mind as he wrote the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” in his classic Orthodoxy.

I would recommend both stories for young readers, though one might hold off on Curdie until the age of 10 or 11 due to the violence.  Regardless, if you are a fan of Tolkien, Lewis, and Chesterton, then do yourself a favor and pick up at least one work by the man Lewis proclaimed his “master.”

Twenty-six down, (at least) twenty-six to go – half-way there!

Ta,
J

Puritan Popery

When I decided to join my co-blogger on this New Year’s resolution, one of the ideas I had was to re-read some of the books I read in high school but didn’t understand or didn’t appreciate because of crappy English teachers.  Last week I finally got around to this task and picked up Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for the first time since junior year in high school.

I won’t bother to give a plot summary, as most people who took English in high school are familiar with the basic story of Hester Prynne and her tryst with the young Puritan minister in 17th century Boston.  While not the most uplifting book, it is a well-crafted tale that touches on far more themes than one can adequately address in a brief blog post, from shame and ostracism to the nature of temptation to vengeance to penitence to historical aspects of life in the colonies.  Though I wouldn’t pretend to have grasped these themes anywhere near completely, reading the book nearly twenty years after my first time I certainly appreciated it more.  (I’m sure it helps that this time I didn’t have to listen to my annoying high school English teacher prattle on about it.)

At any rate, while there is much that could be discussed, the thing that struck me most this time around was the odd fascination with and simultaneous revulsion toward Catholicism.  This ambiguous relationship is manifested in a number of ways, both great and small.  Hawthorne often refers to the Rev. Dimmesdale as a “priest”; as an act of penitence for his sins, Dimmesdale takes of the “papist” practice of the discipline; and of course, one of the overarching themes throughout the novel is the question of the effectiveness of penitence.  Can Arthur and Hester ever atone sufficiently for their sin?  Does one act of passion automatically consign one to the fires of hell?  Or can the shame that Hester bears outwardly and the inner weight of Dimmesdale’s guilt act as a kind of purgatorial fire to absolve them of their sin?  In the end, it seems that the latter is the case, though this purgation is not without its challenges and temptations.

It is a relatively little known fact that Hawthorne’s daughter Rose converted to Catholicism later in life, and after the death of her husband founded a community of Dominican Sisters who care for patients with terminal cancer.  It may be that the seeds of Rose’s conversion were, perhaps a bit ironically, planted by her father.

At any rate, I’m glad I decided to pick up The Scarlet Letter one more time, and I will most likely come back to it again some day.

Twenty-five down, (at least) twenty-seven to go.

Ta,
J

A Requiem for the Towers

My best friend recommended this book.  She said to me, “it is a book about 9/11 that’s not about 9/11.”  My response was “huh?” And she just said back to me, “read it, it is brilliant.” So I did, and she was (of course) right. The book is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and it is a stunning, just stunning work that explores the lives of people in New York City, set in August 1974.

What happened in August 1974? Well that was when the tightrope walker Philippe Petite threw a cable across the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and practically danced across it, in a feat so daring that the whole city paused to take it in. Below Petite are the ordinary people of New York who observe or experience his walk in different ways all while their lives intersect together. In the foreground are the towers themselves– brash monuments to capitalism, innovation and the confidence of a city–no one knew at that moment that they would become a place of so much tragedy and heartache, instead they were new, shiny, and in many ways, hopeful.

The book is incredibly stylized, and while the plot interweaves with surprising deftness, it is the writing that shines. Essentially it is almost a series of short stories, that tell of the lives of a variety of New Yorkers– a radical monk, a nurse, a hooker, an artist, a judge, a grieving Park Ave mother (whose son died in Vietnam), a foster parent, etc. Each chapter has a  voice that is distinct to the character (the most stunning is the rendering of the hooker– heartbreaking) and the characters move back and forth into each others lives, tragedies, and stories. Multiple themes abound, but the chief ones that stood out to me were grace and redemption. Grief and death shadow the characters, as does war (Vietnam.)  All of this goes on under the actions of the tightrope walker, who is the thread that holds the stories together– he stands for the miraculous, the golden moment, the astounding, while the rest of the city lurches along in its dirty, grinding life.

It is a stunning book because in many ways it reminds us that history is cyclical. With the destruction of the towers would eventually come more war, more grief and more people looking for their own personal grace as New Yorkers. Although these events are never directly indicated, they are alluded to, a constant foreshadowing, a constant play of darkness and light, birth and death, the building of new ideas, and destruction because of certain ideals.  The Towers in some way were birthed in a hopefulness, a brash defiance, and they came down in a two horrifying and unbelievable moments. But this book reminds you that the towers should not be defined just by their destruction, and that neither should New Yorkers.

This book was fantastic. It is one of the few books from this year that I will buy and re-read, and will no doubt grow richer with each re-reading.  Sections of it just left me stunned and the writing– the writing is enormously exquisite. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this book won the National Book Award, and it richly deserved it.  I will say no more as the book was so rich I have been thinking about it for several days (always the sign of a good book.) All I will say is go out and read it. This is truly one of the finest and most artistic books that I have read in years.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Inklings Predecessor

Greetings!  This post comes to you from an undisclosed location in Western Europe (as will most of my future posts this year).  Once again, I have taken far too long between posts, but jetlag and getting settled in a new city will do that, even if I finished the book I’m blogging a week ago.

Years ago I heard that both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, two of my favorite writers, were strongly influenced by George MacDonald, a Scottish writer of the nineteenth century, and so for some time I’ve wanted to read one of his books.  A trans-Atlantic flight gave me plenty of time to dig into The Princess and the Goblin, a fairy tale that made a significant impression on another of my favorite authors, G.K. Chesterton.  Now that I’ve read it, I can see MacDonald’s imprint on each of these writers in different ways.

The story bears many of the literary features of a typical fairy tale: no distinct mention of a time or place in this world, stereotypical characters (a king, a princess, a miner, etc.).  The tale also extols many of the virtues that Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis prized: honesty, courage, keeping one’s word, faith in the seemingly impossible.  Moreover, MacDonald emphasizes the power of poetry.  The one thing that scares the goblins in the story away is rhyme, particularly spontaneous and silly rhyme.  It seems clear to me that this element of the story was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil.

Though not overly complicated, the story is a bit much to summarize in a blog post.  Suffice it to say that if you are a fan of Lewis or Tolkien, you should read this book.  According to Wikipedia, Chesterton said of the book that it “made a difference to my whole existence.”  Indeed, I suspect much of the argument in his classic Orthodoxy depended on such lines from MacDonald’s work as, “People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard upon those who believe less”; or, “Seeing is not believing – it is only seeing.”

If you’re a fan of Tolkien, Lewis, or Chesterton, or of fantasy literature/fairy tales in general, then I highly recommend The Princess and the Goblin.  I intend to move on to the sequel, The Princess and Curdie, before too long.

Twenty-four down, (at least) twenty-eight to go.

Ta,
J