Friday, November 21, 2014

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Inkheart starts out like a book lover´s dream. Each chapter begins with a delectable quote from a famous classic. The hero of the story, Mortimer Folchart (known as “Mo”), is a “book doctor” who binds up broken books. Three of the main characters are book addicts. Mo is such a gifted reader that he has the ability to read books and make the contents come true. (Years ago he read the book Inkheart out loud and it changed his life forever.) The bad guys in the book can´t read. Obviously, there is a lot here for bibliophiles to savor. So why didn´t I love this book?

For one thing, it was about a hundred pages too long. By page 450, I stopped caring very much about the outcome. (Sadly, I had seen the movie and knew how it would all turn out.)

Secondly, even with the magic qualities of literature woven into the story, Mo never comes across as an appealing protagonist. Meggie, his daughter, and Elinor, an aunt, add interest to the story, but fail to carry it.

Third, the villains are too stereotypical : Rotten to the core with no subtleties of character.

In spite of all this, there were some marvelous quotes:

If you take a book with you on a journey, an odd thing happens; the book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it.. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it . . . yes, books are like flypapers. Memories cling the printed page better than anything else. (p. 21)

There was another reason why Meggie took her books whenever they went away. They were her home when she was somewhere strange - familiar voices, friends that never quarrelled with her, clever, powerful friends, daring and knowledgeable, tried and tested adventures who had travelled far and wide. (p. 21)

Books have to be heavy because the world´s inside them. (p. 25)

Her curiosity was too much for her. She felt almost as if she could hear the books whispering on the other side of the half-open door. They were promising her a thousand unknown stories, a thousand doors into worlds she had never seen before. (p. 44)

So, even though the story never really grabbed me, I enjoyed the great quotes and the good writing. Funke´s book was translated from German into English by Anthea Bell who hails from the U.K., which gave the book a nice British feel.

Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Poet's Corner by John Lithgow

The Poet’s Corner is subtitled "The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family." I suppose the word “family” is in the title because there is some nonsense poetry included and because of Lithgow’s grandfatherly tone. But if I were trying to introduce my children to poetry, this is not the selection I would choose. The inclusion of modern poetry with its clunky rhythms and obtuse meanings would surely create a distaste for poems among the very young. (If someone has to explain a poem to you before you can like it, you have already missed much of the magic, soul-touching quality of poetry.)

The positive side of this mixture of old and new poems is that you can compare them for yourself. As you listen/read, it becomes increasingly clear that the “new” is, in fact, very much like the Emperor and his new clothes, pretending to be well-dressed, but sadly naked. One poem was so awful, I laughed out loud.

If I had known how much modern poetry was in this audiobook, I probably would not have purchased it. On the other hand, I was glad to have such a painless, crash course on the “greats” of Western poetry. I even learned to appreciate the talent of several poets who I hadn’t liked before (even if their poetry still does not appeal to me).

John Lithgow introduces 50 poems and their authors in alphabetical order of author, so you get the likes of Gertrude Stein right next to Shakespeare, which can be disconcerting. But as I wrote above, it makes the modern authors look pretty silly. The poems are superbly narrated by Hollywood stars such as Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, Jodie Foster, et al. 

Even though, the book did not meet my expectations, my enjoyment of the classic poems superseded my disappointment in the others. And it rekindled my desire to brush up on memorization.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Charlotte's Web by E.B. White

Peter Pan and Wind in the Willows are children´s classics that I revisit regularly. But I would not have read Charlotte's Web again if it had not been for the student I am tutoring. Frankly, I had forgotten what a beautifully touching book it is.

E. B. White succeeds in creating a gentle story while at the same time acknowledging some of life´s harshest realities: death, loneliness, selfishness, and the passing of time. But, thank goodness, he is never maudlin.

I´m a sucker for gorgeous language and this book offers up a rich serving of delectable words and phrases that should whet a child´s appetite for more: "Play?" said Templeton, twirling his whiskers. "Play? I hardly know the meaning of the word." "Well," said Wilbur, "it means to have fun, to frolic, to run and skip and make merry." 

Other words to savor are explained by Charlotte or understood in context. For example, Templeton tells Wilbur to be careful by saying, "I don´t want to be stepped on, or kicked in the face, or pummeled, or crushed in any way, or squashed, or buffeted about, or bruised, or lacerated, or scarred, or biffed." (p. 29) I love any book that treats children as intelligent enough to figure these words out.

The gentle philosophizing was a treat that probably only adult readers would catch, and I relished it.

When your stomach is empty and your mind full, it´s always hard to sleep. (p. 32)

Men rush, rush, rush all the time. (60). Charlotte´s philosophy is Never hurry, Never worry. (p. 65)

Life is always a rich and steady time when your are waiting for something to happen or hatch. (p. 176)

The book´s main impact comes from the unusual friendship between Charlotte and Wilbur. When Charlotte determines to save his life, he declares, "Why did you do all this for me? I don´t deserve it... I´m just an ordinary pig!" "You´re terrific as far as I´m concerned," she replies. And herein is the essence of the story - sacrificial love based not on merit, but on grace.  It is a beautiful story because it echoes The Truest Story.

Its gentle jabs at human foibles, its remarkable prose and its theme of self-giving love make Charlotte`s Web a delight to read.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Profanity in Books and Culture - Part Two

Many years ago I wrote a post about profanity in books and culture. Instead of rehashing what I have already written, I want to add a few thoughts based on the book I just finished called The Exact Place by Marjorie Haack.

First of all, this book is about a young girl's hunger for a father's love. Every page is loaded with the heaviness of her stepfather's rejection, making it a ponderous read. Second, the book is about the glory of everyday things. "I loved the daily ritual of feeding a crowd of chickens who waited eagerly for you to dump their oats and mash into the feeders, of gathering eggs so fresh they were still warm in your cupped hand, of throwing slabs of hay over the fence to the horses who nickered to you as they watched..." Third, the book is about finding grace in the dark places, which is why I liked it very much.

But I didn't love it because of the author's choice to use crass language. I know it's trendy for Christians to swear, but I still found it disheartening.

Beautiful and well-chosen words edify and bring joy. Smutty words denigrate. John MacArthur, in an excellent article about how the Christian community is bending over backward to look, talk and act like non-Christians (in order to better reach them), wrote: I frankly wonder how any Christian who takes the Bible at face value could ever think that in order to be “culturally relevant” Christians should participate in society’s growing infatuation with vulgarity.

Here are two differing posts on the theme of profanity:

Why Christians Shouldn't Cuss and Why Christians Should Cuss

(We all know how wonderful it is to have friends who love us unconditionally, for whom we don't have to clean the house or put on makeup. But to use profanity to weed out your real friends from the false ones seems a trifle juvenile.)

Last of all, I disagree with profanity because the Bible is clear that "the mouth speaks what the heart is full of." (Luke 6:45) If we've experienced the transforming power of God in our lives, our words should be hopeful, grace-filled and life-giving.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Printable C.S. Lewis Quote

Bre posts a free printable on her blog each Friday and last week she quoted C.S. Lewis.

"Dear Heart" is an expression of affection that has waned in popularity, but it's so beautiful. It's the title of one of my favorite movies and the title of a classic love song. It's what the Scarlet Pimpernel calls his wife in the book El dorado. And it's lovely to know C.S. Lewis used it too.

Anyone else ever heard of or used this expression?

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Saint Books by Leslie Charteris

My apologies to anyone who bought Enter the Saint based on my raves in an earlier post. This was a very early entry in the series (1930) and the writer was still developing his hero. (Initially, an adolescent James Bond type.) The only other Saint book I've read has been Follow the Saint (1938), which I enjoyed much more. The truth is that I came to love the Saint stories via movies and old radio shows long before I discovered the so-so novels.

Leslie Charteris began writing the books in 1928 and continued until 1963. The suave, wise-cracking Robin Hood figure caught the imagination of the American public, spawning movies (with the inimitable George Sanders), copycat movies (also with Sanders) , comic books, radio shows (superbly done by a young Vincent Price), and a popular T.V. series with Roger Moore. The regrettable 1997 film character (played by Val Kilmer) bears no resemblance to the original debonair protagonist.

Simon Templar (S.T. = saint) is a droll sophisticate who follows his own code. Like Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel he is a "good guy" who is on the wrong side of the law. His mix of worldliness, boyishness and  good humor endeared him to gazillions of fans. Charteris describes him as a "flippant dandy with the heart of a crusader, a fighter who laughed as he fought, the reckless, smiling swashbuckler, the inspired and beloved leader of men..." (p. 123)

In the afterward to Enter the Saint, Ian Dickerson explains why the series was so popular: Aside from the charm and ability of Charteris´ storytelling, the stories, particularly those published in the first half of the ´30s are full of energy and joi de vivre. With economic depression rampant, the public at large wanted escapism. And the public got what they wanted in the chain-smoking, elegant outlaw. And in spite of the smoking and drinking (which were considered highly glamorous), there's a lot of good clean fun. Apart from Templar, my favorite character in the books is the homely, down-to-earth Inspector Teal who is a perfect foil to the reckless gallant.

(Be forewarned that the books and films contain stereotypes that were common in the '30s and '40s.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Free E-book on C.S. Lewis

Coffee, Tea, Books and Me linked to a free title that sounds really good: Alive to Wonder: Celebrating the Influence of C. S. Lewis.

It is made available at and there are several other free titles (all by John Piper). Worth a look.

While I'm on the subject of Brenda's blog, I want to give a shout out to her excellent post on "Why Bother?" In it she makes a case for taking the extra time (and money and energy) to make something beautiful even when you know that beauty won't always last.

Here's one quote: We bother because every instance we have to choose between getting by and making Beauty, we choose that part of us which is in the image of God. We choose... life.

Thank you, Brenda, for always sharing your life with such grace.