Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Heroism in a Mask: The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

I selected this book for First Son to read in seventh grade as his second "classic." It is one of the recommended books for Level 3 on the Mater Amabilis site. I assigned it as First Son's second classic, but I really think it was easier to read than Ivanhoe which he read earlier in the year.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the first superhero books. The hero is a masked master of disguises, his identity a secret to all but a few trusted followers. The mystery of his identity is revealed before a grand escapade at the end of the book. It all wraps up rather nicely (and quickly) but it's a fun tale of adventure, courage, and heroism amidst the French Revolution.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Consolation, Peace, and Constant Prayer: Love, Henri

by Henri J. M. Nouwen
edited and with a preface by Gabrielle Earnshaw

Nouwen is the author of The Return of the Prodigal Son, which I read and loved a few years ago. This book, a collection of letters Nouwen wrote to friends, acquaintances, readers, and petitioners, offered a chance to get to know the author better and to see development of his thoughts on different subjects like conflict, inter-personal relationships, and vocation.

The letters are organized chronologically (from December 1973 through 1996, the year of his death) and divided into three parts, following his vocation in life and his eventual decision to make his home at a L'Arche community in Canada. The letters were selected because they all touch on "the spiritual life" but the subjects cover multitudes of subjects like marriage, ordination, the birth of children, new jobs, vocations, suicide, death, and divorce.

One of the most striking aspects of Nouwen's letters is his gracious recognition of the gift of the sharing of a soul through the letter he received and to which he is responding. Nearly every letter in this volume begins with a thankfulness to the recipient for the story he or she shared, the fear or loneliness. Nouwen didn't always offer advice in particular situations (though always always he counsels time set aside for regular quiet prayer); it wasn't about solving problems. It was about acknowledging other people for who they are and what they were experiencing. We don't write many personal letters today and perhaps electronic communications discourage such thoughtful introductory paragraphs when we respond to a query, but it occurred to me that I could adjust my own attitude, not only in writing but in person, by outwardly recognizing the vulnerability of others. I'm not exactly certain what this would look like in conversations, but I hope it stays on my mind.

I copied a great many quotes from Nouwen's letters into my commonplace book. For those who are struggling in just about any way, there are bits and pieces throughout this book that will comfort or challenge. Responding in 1981 to a man fearful of nuclear holocaust and war, Nouwen wrote:
But important for me is not if our civilization will survive or not but if we can continue to live with hope, and I really think we can because our Lord has given us His promise that He will stay with us at all times. He is the God of the living, He has overcome evil and death and His love is stronger than any form of death and destruction. That is why I feel that we should continually avoid the temptation of despair and deepen our awareness that God is present in the midst of all the chaos that surrounds us and that that presence allows us to live joyfully and peacefully in a world so filled with sorrow and conflict.
Nouwen championed social justice, peace, forgiveness, and unity throughout his life. He often spoke at social justice conferences and corresponded with those working for social justice throughout the world (especially Central and South America).
Working for social change, to me, means to make visible in time and place that which has already been accomplished in principle by God Himself. This makes it possible to struggle for a better world not out of frustration, resentment, anger or self-righteousness but out of care, love, forgiveness and gratitude.
Nouwen was a Catholic priest who studied psychology and taught at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale. (You can read more about him on the Henri Nouwen society website.) He was also a homosexual, though lived a chaste life (as far as I know). His correspondence in the book includes kind and encouraging letters to homosexual men living with partners or hoping for life-partners. So this book has the ability to alienate traditional Catholics and strident atheists both.

There is a particularly moving letter written in February 1993 to young participants at a social justice weekend at which he was invited to speak but declined. (You can find it on pages 307-308.) Near the end he writes:
We have to do any possible thing to heal these wounds of injustice, whether in Europe, North America or Africa, Asia and Australia. But we have to do this not in a spirit of fear, panic or alarm. We need to work for justice in the deep knowledge that Jesus has already overcome the world and that all our actions flow forth from this spiritual knowledge. This spiritual knowledge will grow deeper in us when we remain faithful to a life in community always dedicated to care for the poor. There you will find true joy and peace and this joy and peace will help you to discern where and how to make your life a life for justice in this world.
Later, he writes a lovely response to a woman interested in the doctrine of purgatory.
The doctrine of purgatory is a doctrine to assure us that God will fulfil our deepest desire to be united with him even when our heart is not totally pure yet. God will then offer us this purification. So it has very little to do with punishment. It is an expression of God's infinite desire to unit himself with us, and in that sense, as a doctrine, purgatory offers consolation and help. 
Nouwen was often intense and depended heavily on his friends. Based on the letters, it was sometimes difficult to meet his needs. On the other hand, his letters also show a great compassion for others and a tendency on his part to overextend himself in service to others.

The news today is as terrifying and distressing as it was in Nouwen's day. His letters offer the same consolation and peace he preached during his life.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review. The opinions above are my own. The links in this post are not affiliate links.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Measuring a Tiger

I found this post in my drafts. These are pictures from a year ago, when Second Daughter was in first grade. I asked her to measure her ridiculous and enormous white tiger stuff animal for a math lesson. She happily measure bits and pieces of him.

Safe to say, this was one of her favorite math lessons of all time.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Port William Past and Present: Three Short Novels

by Wendell Berry

This book includes three novellas: Nathan Coulter, Remembering, and A World Lost. The stories are all set in the Port William community and involve the same characters but with different protagonists.

Nathan Coulter, the first novel, concerns Nathan as a young boy. In it, he begins to discern the connections that run throughout time within his family and the land.
I thought of the spring running there all the time, while the Indians hunted the country and while our people came and took the land and cleared it; and still running while Grandpa's grandfather and his father got old and died. And running while Grandpa drank its water and waited his turn. When I thought of it that way I knew I was waiting my turn too. But that didn't seem real. It was too far away to think about. And I saw how it would have been unreal to Grandpa for so long, and how it must have grieved him when it had finally come close enough to be known.
In the middle novel, Remembering, Andy Catlett is an adult struggling to adjust to life after an accident leading to the amputation of his hand. Through flashbacks, the reader discovers the turning points in his life that led to his renunciation of the pressures of modern life and a return to his family's land.

I always pick out the passages on marriage. Here, he's thinking about their marriage before the current crisis:
It was as though grace and peace were bestowed on them out of the sanctity of marriage itself, which simply furnished them to one another, free and sufficient as rain to leaf. It was as if they were not making marriage but being made by it, and, while it held them, time and their lives flowed over them, like swift water over stones, rubbing them together, grinding off their edges, making them fit together, fit to be together, in the only way that fragments can be rejoined. And though Andy did not understand this, and though he suffered from it, he trusted it and rejoiced in it.
Wandering around in San Francisco, his mind wanders through his past and he begins to emerge from his depression. His thoughts turn to his wife:
He has been wrong. His anger, his loneliness, his selfish grief, all have been wrong. That she, entrusted to him, should ever have wept because of him is his sorrow and his wrong.
The third story, A World Lost, Andy Catlett is a young boy, adjusting to life after his uncle was shot and killed. I struggled in this story to remember that Nathan (from the first story) and Andy (from the third) were different boys, but that was more my own problem with books of short stories rather than a deficiency of the book.
Somewhere inside the jail, only a few feet from us, was the man who had killed him. For a long time there was nothing to be done but stand there in the large silence and the failing light, and know and know the thing we knew. 
This was my Wendell Berry book for 2016 and one I finished just as December was ending. I love reading a little Berry every year, but this book didn't compare to Hannah Coulter for me.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

November 2016 Book Reports

Peter and the Shadow Thieves by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson is the second in the Peter and the Starcatcher series. In it, Peter travels from his warm island back to England to save Molly and her family from a dark and looming threat. There are two deaths in the book, one which happens in the backstory and involves cannibalism at sea and a second that happens before the eyes of the children to an old friend of Molly's family. So I suppose it's a little darker than the first one. I still think it would be acceptable as an audiobook for our whole family (youngest is 6), but I'm going to hold off until reading the third installment. (library copy)

Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith was on First Son's list for historical fiction in the time of the Civil War, recommended in Connecting with History. Jeff's experiences in Bloody Kansas and along the Kansas-Missouri were an excellent read for our Kansas son. Trapped behind enemy lines, Jeff learns to respect and admire the Confederate Cherokee forces. There's a little bit of romance and plenty of death, so probably best for the older students. First Daughter (4th grade) asked to read it and I allowed it once First Son had finished. (library copy)

Who Was Robert E. Lee? by Bonnie Bader was a substitute I made for Connecting with History's recommendation of Robert E. Lee: Gallant Christian Soldier, which our library did not own. It was a fairly easy read for First Daughter (age 10) and gave a respectful biography of this heroic man even though he fought against the Union in the Civil War. (library copy)

Augustus Caesar's World by Genevieve Foster - link to my post (purchased used)

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a relatively new book set in Germany during the second World War. A young girl is left with a foster family after her father's disappearance and her brother's death. Her obsession with books and her kind and loving foster father anchor her in a tumultuous time. Her father also shows great courage in the midst of a fearful populace rather than in the horrors of a battlefield. It's mostly depressing, as you might expect of a wartime novel. Death as the narrator allows insertions on the greater events of the war and a lot of commentary on humanity and war. It seems like a decent enough young adult book, though the choppy flow and casual insertions early in the plot line of the eventual deaths of certain characters annoyed me. (library copy)

The Bat-Poet and The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell - link to my post (inter-library loan and PaperBackSwap.com)

The Ides of April by Mary Ray - I almost didn't buy this book recommended in Connecting with History's volume 2, but found it at a deep discount directly from the publisher (a great way to get Bethlehem Books) and I'm so very glad I did! I enjoyed this story of murder, intrigue, courage, and justice based in Rome at the time of Nero. Though Christianity is not a major part of the story, a Christian plays a pivotal role and explains that he does so because of his faith. (purchased from the publisher)

Lincoln, in His Own Words edited by Milton Meltzer is a compilation of much of Lincoln's own speeches and correspondence, gathered and presented as a coherent whole by the work of the editor. First Son will read this during independent reading as we study the Civil War. I myself have read little of his words and appreciated his wit and wisdom. I kept thinking more of us should read Lincoln on a regular basis. I think this was recommended in Connecting with History volume 4, but I couldn't find it on their website. (library copy)

The Long Road to Gettysburg by Jim Murphy is a riveting account of the Battle of Gettysburg with quotes from a Confederate soldier and a Union soldier. Interspersed with the text are clear maps and illustrative photographs showing the hardships of the soldiers and the immense casualties. I wish I had read this book before I visited Gettysburg as a high school student. First Son read this (7th grade) and, while I would not have encourage it, I would have allowed First Daughter to read it as well (4th grade). (library copy)

My Several Worlds by Pearl S. Buck - link to my post (purchased used at a library book sale)

Books in Progress (and date started)
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These reports are my honest opinions.