Book Meme Day 26: A Book That Changed Your Mind About Something

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a book that changed your opinion, a book that taught you something new, and a book that flat-out amazed you with its uniqueness. You must forgive me if I allow these definitions to blend.

Regardless of your thoughts, if any, on women authors and racial prejudices in early nineteenth century France, you will be surprised by Claire de Duras’ Ourika.

It was published by a woman, de Duras, in 1828, and tells the story of an African girl who is rescued from slavery by an aristocratic French family and raised as part of their family. She grows up unaware of any difference between her and the white society around her; her education is the best money can buy, her clothes and manners are aristocratic, and she is even given a débutante ball to introduce her to society. It is at this point that her problems begin, for only now do other people begin to remark on her exotic looks and consider her something apart. The revelation is devastating to her self-esteem and future plans. And in the midst of all this comes the French Revolution.

Is the fact that an aristocratic French woman in 1828 wrote a story with a black heroine exploring racial prejudice not surprising enough for you? How about the fact that the book is in first person? In snobby-sounding literary analytical terms, this book is “the first earnest attempt by a white author to situate herself within a different racial psyche.” Because Ourika narrates so emotionally and perceptively, we feel all her joy at being a débutante, her horror at the realization that others consider her different, and her heartbreak while coming to terms with the fact that the nice white man she loves is incapable of seeing her as more than a friend, in large part because of her skin color. As Ourika overhears one sympathetic-but-practical lady remark, “What kind of man would marry a negress?” The implication is that no high-born man would consider it appropriate to marry a black woman, and that Ourika is too well-educated and well-raised to marry a low-born man. It is a bizarre and cruel quandary.

The aristocratic Mme de B., who acts as an adopted mother to Ourika, tried very hard for years to hide this aspect of society from her, to preserve Ourika’s happiness and sense of normality. But as another aristocratic woman explains, their society believes that “Ourika has flouted her natural destiny. She has entered society without its permission. It will have its revenge.”

But actually, what surprised me most about this book was how little discrimination Ourika encounters, compared to what I thought would be the case in that place and time. It is nothing like the American South of the same time, which is described so graphically by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography. When Ourika is a child, there is little more than grumblings from outsiders, while most of the people she meets accept her well enough. She doesn’t “regret being black” because “there [is] nothing to warn [her] that the color of [her] skin might be a disadvantage.” She has white friends, and the young man Charles becomes her closest confidant. It is only when she falls in love with him that she realizes he is oblivious to the idea that she could have romantic feelings. Sometimes prejudice can be so subtle.

But what makes this book so affecting is Ourika’s personality. She is a wonderful, warm person, overflowing with generosity, gentleness, and intelligence. She bears her humiliations and heartbreaks with strength and dignity, and does not consider them an excuse for poor behavior on her part. Even more winningly, her faith in God is triumphant. I was sad that in the end she becomes a nun, because I had so hoped that she might find happiness and acceptance by marrying and having a family, which is what she had wanted, and yet I still must be at peace with her decision. In the end, Ourika has come to terms with the society that she lives in, and she understands that in the long run, it matters not what men think of her, because she is a daughter of God in Heaven, in Whose eyes all men and women are equal.

Does this choice of mine fit the meme topic? Maybe not, I don’t know. I do not believe I had read any early nineteenth century French literature before this. However, I had certain assumptions which would never have let me guess the existence of a novel like this. Did I say novel? It’s more like a novella, at under fifty pages. So much is accomplished in that small space, though. I was utterly astonished by this book, and in the end very much won over. Among other things, I guess you could say that it changed my mind about the reputedly callous nature of pre-Revolutionary French aristocracy, because the author, who was of that class, proves to be a singularly sensitive and wise person.

Update: Good news, folks! The University of Georgia has provided the entire story free in PDF format here. In this format it’s only 18 pages, a hefty short story, really. Read it yourself and see if what I said about it is true!

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Book Meme Day 25: A Character To Whom You Can Relate

I nearly gave up on this post. The difficulty of finding an answer for this meme topic distressed me. For a bibliophile to be faced with an inability to choose a single literary character he very much relates to is a troubling concept, for is that not one of the highest purposes of stories, to learn more about ourselves by experiencing the lives of fictional characters? Yet I do not typically read a book and think “Wow, I really identified with that character.” Perhaps some people do, but it is just not the way I think. My approach is not, I think, to look for how a character is similar to me, but to simply try to understand him on their own terms. That is my general approach, I think – I cannot claim to be as objective as that sounds.

Still, after spending many hours wondering, I finally settled on a plausible answer.

Sir Gawain from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

By John Howe.

I relate to him spiritually. As Gawain eagerly loves and serves King Arthur, who is also his uncle, so do I love and serve God, my King, who has declared me (as all Christians) to be his adopted son. As Gawain is dedicated to maintaining his purity and honor, as a Knight of the Round Table and a Christian man, so do I, as a Christian man, seek to maintain my own of both.  And as Gawain is tempted so dangerously in these areas, so am I.

When the Lady of Castle Hautdesert tries to seduce Gawain, she does so with disarming grace and humor. Her intentions are clear, but her manner is not that of mere slut. Gawain is faced with a difficult quandary: how does he rebuff her and maintain his purity, while not offending her and possibly invoking her husband’s wrath? Now, as a Christian, it is clear to see what Gawain’s priorities should be; he should have fled from the Lady’s presence as soon as her intentions were apparent, and risked offending her. That would have been the best course of action. Gawain makes the mistake of trying to please the woman while still refusing her advances and maintaining his physical and spiritual purity. The danger is real: Gawain is deeply attracted to her beauty, intelligence, and grace, and is pleased by her flattery.

In my reading, I believe Gawain is truly, utterly sincere in his values. He knows that physical purity is not enough – God demands that he have pure thoughts as well as deeds. It is a difficult struggle, and one that every man can relate to, as we watch Gawain struggle over three days to figure out the right course of action. He is imperfect, and even though in the end he maintains his physical purity – which satisfies everyone else in the story – he knows that he did compromise his spiritual purity, and that bothers him. By human standards he did exceptionally well, morally, but Gawain knows that in God’s eyes he is still a sinner. His awareness is something I can relate to, even as I rejoice in the knowledge of God’s mercy and grace.

Book Meme Day 23: A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t

Oh boy, where do I begin? There are more than I can list, and one is not more prominent than all others, so what follows will only be a selection, in no particular order.

Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien

This little-known children’s story is much shorter and more whimsical than The Hobbit, and not tied into the mythology of Middle-Earth. In it, Tolkien tells of the brave Farmer Giles who must confront the dragon Chrysophylax to protect his little town in the Thames valley. I have a very nice hardback copy, with the original illustrations by Pauline Baynes that Tolkien loved, and it has been waiting for me to read it for years. Somehow I haven’t got around to it yet, but at least I have it.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

A reputed classic of modern Arthurian literature, and, I’m told, just a really fun set of stories. I started reading it a long time ago, probably when I was in junior high school, but stopped very shortly, put off by the anachronistic and whimsical side of Merlin, which I thought very disrespectful to so august a legend. Now, though, I am eager to revisit it, but I can’t say when.

The Magic Bicycle by John Bibee

A strange, mysterious book about which I know little. You know how, when you were a child, there were always these intriguing books at the bottom of your parents’ bookshelves, or lying in some dusty pile in a corner, which you never read or knew much about and which usually had become such a part of the background of your house that you hardly ever noticed them? This is one of those books, for me. I think it technically belonged to my older sister, but she never read it much and left it behind when she married and moved out. My dad commented once or twice that he remembered it being very good, but a little scary for children. Of course, these were magic words to me, but it’s always remained on a dusty bottom shelf, patiently waiting until I find time to open its secrets.

The War With Hannibal by Livy

Selections of this famous Roman historian were required reading for some of my classics courses at university, but Livy was so dense that I never got past perhaps a chapter or two in my freshman year. Still, I have always intended to go back and read most, if not all, of it. Ancient history is always fascinating, doubly so when told by the ancient historians themselves, who were as much storytellers as academics (some might say moreso).

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

A classic of English Renaissance literature, and a chivalric epic with deeply Christian themes. Or so is its reputation. I haven’t read it beyond a few small selections in high school, which hardly count. My only real familiarity comes from the children’s adaptation in Saint George and the Dragon, my pick for Day 21. Don’t think I even own a complete copy! But someday, someday I will read it in its entirety.

All these, plus many works by and about C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany, and others with whom they all associated and wrote about. And there are the other ancient and medieval works, the philosophical treatises, and the allegedly wonderful novels that I am told I must read. The world is too large and my life too short for all the reading and the living I desire!

Book Meme Day 18: A Book That Disappointed Me

And how, exactly, is this different from “overrated?” I suppose there is a technical distinction: an overrated book is specifically one that failed to live up to its hype by other people, whereas a disappointing book failed to live up to your own personal expectations, even as they may differ from those of other readers.

Expectations, of course, are tricky little beasties. They can sneak into your mind’s eye in the wake of their even trickier cousins, assumptions. Some of them are reasonable and well-informed, but many are not. They feed on your wilder emotions and buried memories, especially when your most valiant guards – humility, caution, and perspective – are lax at the posts.

Actually, mine, for this book, are not so psychological. They were formed from its reputation as an adventure classic and from its film adaptation, which is also, in my opinion, an adventure classic of a minor sort. And, to be honest, I still like the book. It just was a very different book from what I was led to believe, and possibly, from what it had initially wanted to be.

I write of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

The Three Musketeers had prepared me for Dumas’ rambling, serialized, paid-by-the-word narrative style, but in The Count of Monte Cristo it almost seems as if he is deliberately avoiding plot and excitement. As with Musketeers, he will start with an engaging scene to draw you in and paint an energetic picture of the setting. You will keep reading, waiting for the excitement and adventure to erupt before you and continue unabated until the end. You will wait. There will be lots of intrigue, but only the occasional flash of swashbuckling. Subplots will begin to arise one after the other, and soon every side character (of which there are many) will have their history explained to you in narration, and perhaps also a chapter or few to take you into their homes, their families, their businesses, and their secret dealings. You continue to read, expecting a larger plot to come, but mostly hoping for more of that swashbuckling of which you have got only a taste. The subplots continue, until you begin to realize that they are all fuzzy threads that are being clumsily entwined, as though a nine year-old has gotten hold of a weaving kit. Alarmed, you keep reading. Prospects of great adventure keep rising up, and then hiding themselves quickly. Emotions simmer as most characters refuse to act on them, families plot against each other, our hero doesn’t do much, there are parties and secret meetings and financial speculations, until suddenly a climax is formulated in which some bad fellows get a public humiliation, someone probably commits suicide, and our hero, who has not done much, goes off into a long-postponed happy ending that nonetheless feels a bit odd to the reader.

That’s the gist of it. It’s a soap opera, and like a soap opera The Count of Monte Cristo lacks focus. It starts splendidly and gets you excited about its premise. The famous story is this: Edmond Dantes gets betrayed by his best friend and sent to the dreaded island prison Chateau d’If, from which after many years he escapes, finds a wealth of buried pirate treasure, and returns to Paris with a new, fabulously powerful identity as the titular Count with the intention of ruining the lives of all who had a hand in his betrayal. Eventually, though, Dumas gets too involved in all his dozens of side characters, to the extreme detriment of his protagonist. Edmond barely appears in the latter half of the book, and as a result I never got to know him as well as I wanted. He is the most interesting character in the book by far, but Dumas never stays with him very long, instead splitting off into the lives of minor characters who ultimately are not that important or that interesting. Too many subplots clutter the pages, and most of them do not have a clear arc, that I could tell. You get lost in all the names and places and financial planning, until you’ve forgotten what happened five chapters ago and are completely lost when Dumas switches to continue another group’s story.

The worst criticism I can level at the majority of this book is that it is boring. Bogged down, stagnant, muddled.

There is, eventually, a climax involving the main plot and Dantes having the option of revenge. It is pretty good, but not nearly as exciting or satisfactory as I had hoped after the hundreds and hundreds of pages I’d read. And the ending, with Dantes sailing into the sunset with his lover, his young former servant (I forget her name), is meant to be happy, but it does not settle right for the modern reader. By this time Dantes is at least twice the age of the girl, and has a nurturing father-daughter relationship with her. She has pined after him for years, it is said, but his emotions for her are never convincing as love, just general gratitude for her friendship and service. So when he accepts her romantically and they sail off, it doesn’t feel right. He’s too old for her, and I’m not convinced he’s really in love with her. It was frustrating. I felt that both I and Dantes deserved better after suffering so much.

But hey, I still said I liked it, didn’t I? Well yeah. The basic plot is still a classic one, and there are flashes of great intrigue going on. It’s a darker book than The Three Musketeers, though, lacking Dumas’ sharp humor.  Someday I may reread it, and maybe then I will discover a labyrinth of careful psychological character studies and intricate, purposeful themes. But when I read it, especially since it lacked the high adventure I had so hoped for, The Count of Monte Cristo disappointed.

Book Meme Day 11: A Book I Hate

At least this meme topic is pretty straightforward. I’ve already written about my extreme distaste for Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, so this time I will spread the hate around. In fact, this post is a bit nostalgic for me. The irony is that the book I have chosen, the first I remember hating with a passion, was required reading for one of my favorite and most beneficial classes in high school.

The book is Candide by Voltaire.

English and history professors say that Candide is an important book, a great picaresque bildungsroman and a clever satire of nearly everything. Perhaps that is part of the problem. The bildungsroman is a fine and noble genre, but I have always been suspicious of satires; they have their uses, I suppose, but they seem horribly limited and derive most of their thematic content from the tearing down of the opposing viewpoint rather than from the encouraging construction of a better one. Picaresque novels hold out the promise of entertaining adventure, but too often satire sneaks in even there to ruin all the fun by mocking someone else. Thus in the case of a picaresque satirical bildungsroman like Candide, the book is focused purely on its vulgar deconstructions of opposing viewpoints and uses its story and characters only for this purpose.

Therefore, one’s enjoyment of Candide is largely based on how much you dislike the viewpoints it attacks, whether you derive enjoyment from one-sided philosophical attacks, and whether you think vicious rapes and mutilations (of men and women) in utterly absurd situations make for uproarious comedy. For instance, the major target of Voltaire’s vitriol is the philosophy of Leibniz, which Voltaire takes to be simplistic optimism expressed as “this is the best of all possible worlds” because God is good and cannot make something imperfect. Thus the plot of Candide is about our eponymous hero trying to maintain that philosophy while all the worst conceivable events (to ridiculous and illogical levels) befall him and his friends. Now the problem is not that Leibniz is right (he isn’t), but that Voltaire attacks him by way of a Straw Man in order to suggest that because this world is obviously rotten, therefore God, if He exists, is either not good or just not involved. As anyone with simple education in Christianity can see, both of these views ignore one of the fundamental points of Christian cosmology – the Fall of Man (and with him, of all Creation). This world was once the best of all possible worlds, but sin has brought it down, and it is sin that must be dealt with. Voltaire does not see this.

So there are philosophical reasons I don’t like Candide – I think the book very poor and unconvincing on that account. Aesthetically it is ugly, depressing, and generally revels in its own ludicrous filth. It tries to be acceptable by seeking refuge in the excessively vulgar, but personally I think that very idea is an oxymoron. It thinks itself clever and may be a little, but it also thinks itself funny when it certainly is not. Now, I often do find outrageous things to be funny, as in the case of some of Monty Python’s humor or in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but never when it is combined with filth.

In short, I hate this book. I really think the world would be slightly better if it had never been written.

Honorable Mention: The Metamorphoses of Apuleius (also called The Golden Ass, and not to be confused with Ovid’s Metamorphoses), despite it containing one of the most beautiful ancient myths, of Cupid and Psyche.

Book Meme Day 10: Favorite Classic Book

Well that’s just not fair.

First I had to define “best,” and now I have to define “classic?” You ask the impossible! Scholars and educators have debated this question for ages, with only a vague consensus on what is called the Western Canon. Wikipedia declares “A classic book is a book accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy, either through an imprimatur such as being listed in any of the Western canons or through a reader’s own personal opinion.” I’d better not define it by my own opinion, then, because all the other Meme topics are my opinion, and it would ruin the point of having limitations in these choices. So I guess I shall go by the Western Canon of Great Books. Which of course is a general outline, and can easily be modified (each university usually does modify it to their own liking).

To this I will add the following qualifications: no 20th Century books, but the definition of “book” can be flexible.

Even among this limited list, there are so many grand and important books that I admire, and would like to feature. To speak of classic literature and not laud Homer, Aristotle, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, or Dostoevsky would pain me, so please, I beg you, consider them now lauded.

Still, I choose the fourteenth-century Middle English verse romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

As “the finest Arthurian romance in English,” as it is called by the Norton Anthology, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight blends beautiful language and strong moral purpose into a story of surprising nuance and complexity. On purely aesthetic grounds, the poem is exceptional, especially if translated with the alliteration intact (the excerpt below is translated by Marie Boroff). Take a moment to enjoy this description of the Green Knight, shortly after he has burst into Arthur’s hall unannounced:

And in guise all of green, the gear and the man:
A coat cut close, that clung to his sides,
And a mantle to match, made with a lining
Of furs cut and fitted—the fabric was noble,
Embellished all with ermine, and his hood beside,
That was loosed from his locks, and laid on his shoulders.
With grim hose and tight, the same tint of green,
His great calves were girt, and gold spurs under
He bore on silk bands that embellished his heels,
And footgear well-fashioned, for riding most fit.
And all his vesture verily was verdant green;
Both the bosses on his belt and other bright gems
That were richly ranged on his raiment noble
About himself and his saddle, set upon silk,
That to tell half the trifles would tax my wits,
The butterflies and birds embroidered thereon
In green of the gayest, with many a gold thread.
The pendants of the breast-band, the princely crupper,
And the bars of the bit were brightly enameled;
The stout stirrups were green, that steadied his feet,
And the bows of the saddle and the side-panels both,
That gleamed all and glinted with green gems about.
The steed he bestrides of that same green
so bright.
A green horse great and thick;
A headstrong steed of might;
In broidered bridle quick,
Mount matched man aright. (151-178)

In my reading, the poem centers around the efforts of the Green Knight Bertilak and his wife, the Lady of Castle Hautdesert, to help Arthur’s court mature by dragging them out of their comfort zone and forcing them to live up to their great name. Camelot is young at this point, its knights still “in their first age” (54) and inexperienced in life. The Green Knight has two tests for Gawain, the court’s young representative. The infamous Beheading Game tests his courage against certain death and his personal integrity in keeping a promise even to the loss of his life. The more subtle game of seduction that Lady Hautdesert plays tests Gawain’s commitment to spiritual purity, a courteous disposition, and self-control. All of these traits are essential for spiritual chivalry.

The Gawain of this poem is my favorite Arthurian knight, bar none. He is the most realistic Christian knight in literature that I have encountered because he desires so strongly to follow Christ’s example but is hindered by all the imperfections and sins that attack us in real life. The poet describes his physical and spiritual journeys with a wonderful attention to detail and a flair for descriptive passages that, while often quite long, remain nonetheless fascinating. And the passages of dialogue, which I admit are not always selling points for medieval romances, are tricky games in and of themselves, with each character cleverly concealing their true thoughts for different purposes.

Another definition of a classic story is one which “keeps on giving” to the reader. It can be endlessly read, interpreted, and reinterpreted, and it inspires people to do so because of the wealth of life lessons it yields each time. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does this.

It also happens to be a rattling good story.

(Thank you, British writers, for inventing the phrase “rattling good story!”)

Honorable Mentions: The Odyssey by Homer and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Book Meme Day 7: An Underrated Book

I’ve been pondering the distinction between an underrated book and an overlooked book. The latter merely means that fewer people have read it than you think should have, and it is possible that the few who have read it all think it great. But the former is the opposite, meaning that many or most of those who have read the book fail to appreciate the qualities you think make it great. It is not too difficult to find an overlooked book, since most books are overlooked by most people. To decide a book is underrated is a trickier task, because it requires some knowledge of what other people think of it.

Most of the books that came to my mind fit more in the overlooked category, and thus it has been a struggle to find one that is truly underrated. Favorite books of mine like Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers and George MacDonald’s Phantastes can be counted obscure, but their readers, however few, tend to praise them.

So in the end my choice for an underrated book is more a choice of an underrated main character. The novel itself has been studied ad nauseum in schools and universities, and both its emotional power and importance in American history have generally been admitted. However, my impression has been that its title character is not given the respect he so richly deserves.

The book is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I’d love to be wrong about this, but I have heard that it is vogue among academics to disparage Tom while grudgingly admitting the book’s historical importance. Uncle Tom, they say, is a poor portrayal of an African-American in literature because he always submits meekly to the violence of his evil master Simon Legree, when he should (they think) rise up and fight. Other heroic slaves, such as Eliza and George Harris, do all they can to escape and fight the slave hunters, but Tom doesn’t. His resistance is of the civil kind, refusing to obey his master only when Legree’s orders directly contradict those of God (such as when Legree orders him to whip another slave, or to stop reading the Bible). The unjust punishments for this civil disobedience he accepts without complaint, and he is always eager to do good even to those who hate him. In the words of Wikipedia, “too eager to please white people.”

In actuality, Tom is one of the greatest Christian characters in American fiction, challenging our modern sensibilities with his faithful adherence to Christ’s command “Love your enemies as yourself.” Abuse upon abuse is heaped on his head, and his response is to pray for his attacker’s soul. Even as he is beaten viciously by two slave drivers, he cries out forgiveness to them and Simon Legree, proclaiming Christ’s love and the possibility of repentance unto his dying breath. And in my estimation, he shames all the other characters, even the good and heroic ones, by his attitudes, and challenges Christians in the real world to follow our Lord’s example to such a degree. His faith is shaken at times, and he suffers doubts like even the great towers of faith throughout history have, but he never forsakes his Savior. And even in his death, Christ honors his faith, for the two men who were beating him are so convicted by their sin and Tom’s unrelenting love, that they repent and are saved.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a perfect book. It is extremely melodramatic, relies often on stereotypes (of all sorts of dramatic characters), and sometimes the dialogue approaches the ridiculous (Eva’s death speech, anyone?). But Tom himself, in addition to being a living and breathing character, is also a man after God’s own heart, of whom it may be said he was a good and faithful servant of our Lord, even unto death.