Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The movie is better. Much better, in fact.

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In 1903, Baroness
Orczy wrote a successful stage play about a foppish English noble who mastered the art of “disguise and redirect” in order to save the lives of French royals destined for the Madame Guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Building on the success of The Scarlet Pimpernel production, she converted the story into a novel which launched a series of eleven novels and two collections of short stories. The concept is quite intriguing and was well received on both sides of the Atlantic. The title, The Scarlet Pimpernel, became so emblematic of resistance to terror that several decades later a number of distinct WWII spies were assigned the moniker. For example, Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty was dubbed “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” for his use of disguises and underground rescue operations for escaped Allied POWs, Jews, and refugees during WWII.

The 1982 movie is better. I know, I said that already. As a bibliophile, it pains me to write that. But, sadly, it is absolutely true. And sadly, the same is true of my other favorite Pimpernel story. The movie The Scarlet and the Black with Christopher Plummer and Gregory Peck is much better than J.P. Gallagher’s The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican. (More on that in another review.)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a quirky book (or series of books). The writing is uneven. In places, it is beautiful. In other places, it is enough to drive any good reader to the brink of insanity. How many times must she use “superhuman” to describe an effort that Percy or Marguerite is making… at least twice in one chapter and again later. It doesn’t fit the first, second, or third time! Let alone three times in one short novel.

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This story is so interesting, that it has become a classic without really proving itself a specimen of good literature. Perhaps someday it will go away. But I suspect that this one will hang around. The idea of a consummate actor with nearly limitless resources, power, and influence putting his life in danger to save innocent men and women from the satanic bloodlust of the French revolutionaries is classically intriguing. The story is brilliant. The writing is subpar. The concept has gone on to inspire the back story for many other super heroes like Batman and Zorro.

Towards the end of the novel, there is a long and irritating windup before the conclusion. Frankly, it is ridiculous and incredibly repetitious. We hear how much Marguerite loves this man, whose life is in peril, every other page. Far from romantic, it feels like a record that keeps skipping. Marguerite’s superficiality is distracting and takes away from the story itself. The final section of the novel, however, is lovely. The conclusion is creative, elegantly written, and rosy.

I keep saying that the movie is better. It is. The screenwriters took all of the Marguerite novels into consideration when writing a strong story arc with nuanced plot twists. (Over the 13 Pimpernel books, Sir Percy’s wife Marguerite only features in a few.) In the 1982 movie, Jane Seymour’s Marguerite is a much stronger and more interesting character than the Marguerite of the novels. Likewise, Anthony Andrews’ Sir Percy is warmer and more lovable than the character in the novel. By combining several of the best storylines into one movie, we get the best that the book series has to offer.

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Uneven as it is, the story is a wonderful way to introduce teens to the historical setting of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Of course there are more well-written historical fiction books in this setting, A Tale of Two Cities, for example. This one, however, is unique, compelling, exciting, wholesome, and romantic. A little bit Jane Austen, a little bit Charles Dickens, a little bit Victor Hugo, and a little bit Alexandre Dumas. Clean, noble, and clever, this story could help young men and young women fall in love with the period and develop an interest in the complexities of that time.

The Audible version that I have is both excellent and horrible at the same time. The narrator is fantastic. The cover art and music are horrendous. If you choose to get the audio, don’t let the music turn you off of the really great narrator.

Note: I would not pass along the other novels in the series to teens without previewing. I am re-reading The Elusive Pimpernel right now (another Marguerite novel) and am irritated with how much like a cheap romance novel it reads. It is not immoral, but it is loaded with over the top descriptions of romance and marital bliss. To quote Fred Savage’s character in The Princess Bride, “is this a kissing book? I HATE kissing books.”

 

Posted in Book Lovers Community

What If: Serious Scientific Answers

A few years ago some friends recommended What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe because I have a very science-minded little boy who loves “what if” type questions. Munroe started his career by building robots for NASA. He is the author of a very popular webcomic and science Q&A blog: “What If.” The concept of the book is that he answers strange and ridiculous questions that have true scientific possibilities. The format is fantastic. Fans of the blog submit wild questions and Munroe answers those questions with stick figure comics, a friendly tone, and serious theoretical science. I loved this book. Until I didn’t. I will probably love this book again down the road.

This review is tricky to write. My desire to talk about this book with parents of young readers comes from the nuances I found in the writing. For mature teens or adult readers who are well grounded in their worldview, I think that my comments are mere quibbles. For young readers, however, I think that caution is necessary.

The book is fantastic, except that, understandably, not all of the scientific answers are entirely wholesome. While this book is a wonderful adventure into theoretical science, it suffers under the sad limitations of secular bias and separation from theological possibilities. Of course, I expected that. I just wish that it weren’t so. I am not arguing with Munroe. I am just stating it for the Christian readers of this blog who want to know how appropriate this book would be for creationists and those who hold biblical values. Much of the science has nothing to do with religious questions, but some does. So, know that.

Really, I am not foolish enough to expect popular modern scientists to be any different than Carl Sagan’s Ellie Arroway. I fully expect rationalists, theoretical scientists in particular, to be staunchly entrenched in the post-Enlightenment camp. I completely disagree with their position, but I do understand and respect it.

What I find maddeningly frustrating about this book is that it is ridiculously attractive to curious science-minded readers, young and old. And, because this book is very attractive to young readers, it is sad that the secular humanistic tendencies of the writing do nothing to protect young readers from topics beyond their level of innocence. While the book is written in such a way that nine-year-olds can grasp much of the explanation, sadly, it covers territory not fit for nine-year-olds. Specifically, what I find a bit dangerous is that many rationalists and secular humanists seek to make questions about sexuality purely rational and simplistic. For many, it is part of an agenda to “properly educate” children in the progressive way and desensitize them to traditional religious understanding on moral teaching. I would not presume to assert that that is what Munroe is attempting to do. Rather that the progressive mindset has conditioned two generations to think this way already, so they see no reason why they should be careful in presenting material in a way that considers the innocence of its readers.

In fairness, there is no indication that this book is designed for nine-year-olds. From what I can tell, Munroe intends this book for more mature audiences. I don’t mean to throw mud on the book, but merely caution parents. This review is asserting praise for the concept generally, and voicing concern for parents of young readers specifically.

The chapter that caused me the most concern is entitled “Self Fertilization.” The question posits whether or not researchers would be able to extract bone marrow stem cells in such a way that a woman could impregnate herself. Munroe responds, “To make a human you need two sets of DNA.” Fair enough. The nine and a half pages that follow explain the science of reproduction, DNA, chromosomes, inbreeding coefficient, etc. Not how I want to talk to my son about reproduction, but good science. The trouble is that, typical of his friendly style, Munroe interjects social commentary into the chapter. “Self-fertilization is a risky strategy, which is why sex is so popular among large and complex organisms. (footnote: Well, one of the reasons.)” Also, “occasionally complex animals that reproduce asexually, but this behavior is relatively rare. It typically appears in environments where it is difficult to reproduce sexually, whether due to resource scarcity, population isolation… or overconfident theme park operators.” Clearly, he has not said anything scandalous here. What he has done, however, is take the miracle of life and essentially put it in a petri dish. As a lover of science, I get it. God’s miracles are not diminished by us understanding how He uses biology to effect His will. But the callous treatment of questions that deserve some wonder and awe makes me sad, and until my son is more mature, this isn’t the way that I want him thinking of these issues.

I own both the hardback book and the audiobook from Audible. My husband and I have discerned that this book is generally pretty good for our son. Instead of taking the book away, I did something I almost never do; I cut the chapter out. Until Christians write books like this (who knows, maybe my son will someday), we are going to have to deal with some of this. That said, we simply don’t need that chapter. At this time, I still don’t know what to do about the Audible recording. I cannot delete a chapter, that I am aware of.

As my son exits early childhood and moves into the transition years, we are going to have more and more challenges like this. The tension between living in, but not of the world is always present. It is my hope that we can find a balance without compromising our values. Because we are enchanted with science, I think we are going to be working through many books like this on a case-by-case basis. As we do, I hope to continue to review them here for parents in a similar predicament.

“Physics does not change the nature of the world it studies, and no science of behavior can change the essential nature of man, even though both sciences yield technologies with a vast power to manipulate the subject matters.” (Pope Paul VI)

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Helena

On September 29, 1930, Evelyn Waugh, the author of Vile Bodies and other ultra-post-modern works, entered the Catholic Church. Three weeks later, the Daily Express published an essay by the convert entitled “Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened.”  In that essay, Waugh explained his choice to submit to ultra-orthodoxy in an age which desperately needed to remember Europe’s Christian roots.

“Today we can see it on all sides as the active negation of all that Western culture has stood for. Civilization – and by this I do not mean talking cinemas and tinned food, nor even surgery and hygienic houses, but the whole moral and artistic organization of Europe – has not in itself the power of survival. It came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance. The loss of faith in Christianity and the consequential lack of confidence in moral and social standards have become embodied in the ideal of a materialistic, mechanized state… it is no longer possible… to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests.” (Catholic Literary Giants, p. 213)

In 1950, Waugh published his favorite – Helena. “[It was] far the best book I have ever written or ever will write (The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography, Douglas Patey). In this beautiful novel, Waugh takes what little we know about Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, and builds a historical fiction that is entertaining and wholesome to read. While some of the novel is clearly fiction, much of it is based on sound research and a good understanding of the evolution of Christendom. Helena can be read as historical fiction or merely as a novel. The language and descriptions are gorgeous and expressive.

In a book club discussion, I mentioned that Waugh’s writing reminded me of a fast moving river. The language washes over the reader with strength and speed, while also being deep and wide. More importantly, the elegance of his writing invites the reader to get lost in the world he is painting. Something about this book makes me feel like I am studying a series of Renaissance paintings.

In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s writing felt appropriately cold and calculated. In Helena, the writing is soft, soothing, and almost sunny. Even though a great number of difficult and dark things happen in this story, Waugh writes in a way that reminds us that the light of Christ is always peeking in and warming the scene. Even before He is invited, we know that He will be present. The writing of this story is evocative of biblical prose.

“For thirteen years Helena lived alone. Her hair lost its fierce color and, scorning dyes, she wore it always wound in a silk shawl. She thickened in limb and body, held herself firmer, moved more resolutely, spoke with authority and decision, took careful count of her possessions, gave orders and saw them obeyed. She had moved, on Constantius’s elevation, from Government House to his villa, purchased and enclosed a large estate and made it thrive. She knew every man and beast on the place and the yield of each plantation; her wine commanded a high price in the market at Salona… Here among oleander and myrtle, lizard and cicada, Helena gently laid down the load of her womanhood.” (Helena, Chapter 5)

Mike Aquilina is a scholar of the early church. In his new book The World of Ben Hur, he explains why Lew Wallace focused on leprosy in Ben Hur. “People with leprosy had been sentenced to a horrible fate: why would a just God do something like that? It must have been something the lepers did – some sin they committed… leprosy was not just a disease: it was a sign of moral evil.” (p 123) Aquilina explains that no group – political or religious would help a leper, and that all people thought they were more than morally justified in scorning the “unclean.” And yet, when Christ enters into the world, He not only touches lepers, but He heals them. In His love for the lepers, the cripples, the blind, and all who were marginalized, He is very powerfully turning the old religious and secular standards on their heads. Christ was a radical revolutionary. Aquilina asserts that Wallace was trying to help us regain our sense of awe when reflecting on the fundamental transformation that Christ effected on civilization.

In Helena, we get the sense that Waugh is attempting to do the same kind of thing. By revealing the barbarism and cruelty of the Roman world (and the worlds that Rome conquered), we get a glimpse of what true good Christianity would do if unleashed. Following Helena’s story helps us see the old pagan world clash with the new Christian world.

Additionally, in Helena, Constantine’s Christianity is riddled with heresy. Constantine mixes paganism and Christianity together, promotes heretics as bishops, and spends much of his life confusing truth with trends. By contrasting mother and son, Waugh shows us how, even in the chaos, Christ remained present and the Holy Spirit led Helena in ways that would safeguard true Christian teaching.

“It wasn’t about her sanctity I was writing; it was about the conditions of fourth-century Rome, you see. She happened to be the empress. It wasn’t the fact of her rank that made her interesting; it was the fact of her finding the True Cross made her interesting.” (Evelyn Waugh on BBC’s “Face to Face” with John Freeman)

In a time of modern unrest, Waugh helps us see how similar our times are to those of Helena’s. I read this book during the 2016 Presidential election. While many around me were despairing of our times, I was encouraged. I got a glimpse of how much better the world is today because Christ baptized western civilization through Constantine and his heirs. While it is true that we live in precarious times and we are in danger of returning to godlessness, I found this little book to be a source of encouragement. If the Holy Spirit remained steadfast in the life of Helena, wouldn’t He do the same for me?

By the way, this particular edition of Helena is lovely and comes with a book club study guide in the back.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Mrs. Mike

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the word “poignant” is Middle English from the Old French word “poindre,” which descends from the Latin “pungere” which means “to prick.”  Today’s understanding of the word poignant is “a keen sense of sadness or regret.” I love how the Latin helps us understand this word. The idea of something pricking connotes discomfort.  When we are attempting to use the word poignant in reference to a story, it is helpful to know that the sadness and regret we are trying to convey is coupled with the discomfort of a prick. When trying to decide how to describe Mrs. Mike, I thought that the word poignant was accurate and helpful.

In 1947 Benedict and Nancy Freeman published a heartbreaking and beautiful story called Mrs. Mike. Set in the early 1900s in the Canadian wilderness, the reader falls in love with a young, spunky, and tender souled Kathy Mary O’Fallon and her wise and skilled Mountie husband, Sergeant Mike Flannigan.  Their courtship is short but sweet (and full of Irish stubbornness) and it sets the tone for what we hope will be a beautiful old-fashioned young bride story.

Mrs. Mike is that – a beautiful old-fashioned young bride story, but it is also a pioneer story. It is a story of joy and hardship. It is a story of life and death. It is a story of humanity, immigration, nature, motherhood, and plague. As the story progresses, the challenges become more acute and more personal. The authors gently prepare us for the sacrifices that are coming. Tragedy strikes close to home before it lands in Kathy and Mike’s small house.

Readers of Lucy Maud Montgomery might draw comparisons between Mrs. Mike and Montgomery’s stories because of the combination of language style and Canadian themes.  However, the story is a far cry from Montgomery in terms of plot, story arc, and Mrs. Mike’s inclusion of Native American peoples and their customs.

This story is marked in Goodreads and other places as being an advanced young readers story. I think it has that designation because Kathy is 16 at the beginning of the story, and any references to marital relations are very innocent with the graceful exception of one tiny place. (I would give it an A- on the innocence scale.)  That said, I would not give this to a sensitive teen. The hard parts are pretty heavy, and I’m not sure this is great food for an unmarried woman. The kind of maternal suffering in this book really should be saved for adult women, in my opinion.

Mrs. Mike ends well. But, the ending is bittersweet. And, there is so much suffering leading up to it, that it makes the ending a little unfulfilling. While the writing is beautiful, the plot is based on true-to-life situations, the characters are moral and noble, this is just a heavy story. The Canadian wilderness in the early 1900s was a very dangerous place to raise a family. As one of the characters warns Kathy when she moves to town, women in that part of the country refer to their “first family,” their “second family,” and their “third family.” The Canadian wilderness devours husbands and children through fire, through bears, through pox, and through flu. At that time, the northern Canadian wilderness was too remote, too primitive, and too wild to not lose entire villages every few years.

I have said that the writing is beautiful. I really do believe that. The story is very well constructed. It is reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie books or Applesauce Needs Sugar. Pioneer life, no matter where in North America it occurred, was always a gamble, and often full of losses. I think the writing captures some of the wild spirit of the rough terrain. The writing alternates between beautiful prose and very ethnic dialogue.

The theology in Mrs. Mike is a bit baffling. One might even say that it’s almost a little New Age. The main white characters adhere to a combination of basic Christian principles, some biblical teaching, some traditional worship, and some Native American spiritual customs. The village is named for the missionary Catholic priest who settled it, and we get the sense that he and the nuns who run the orphanage are pretty traditionally Catholic, but the families in the village, and their Native American neighbors practice a happy inclusive theology. Needless to say, orthodox Christians may raise an eyebrow or two.

Special Note for Moms and Pregnant Readers: this story deals with an abortion, infant loss, and the deaths of children by fire, drowning, and plague. Readers who are sensitive may wish to read this in a different season of life.

I have read Mrs. Mike two times. Each time I thought that the writing was beautiful, that the characters were very interesting, that the plot seemed plausible, but that it just wasn’t a good fit for me. I don’t generally prefer stories which are sad, but I feel that this was even beyond that. I feel like there is more suffering than happiness in this story, and that leaves me wanting more. Either more character development, richer theology, or more satisfaction in the conclusion. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong.

Generally we try not to write reviews that are not explicit recommendations. Basically, it’s our desire to use this site to make great recommendations for families. Sometimes, however, there are books that are worth a critical review. In the case of this book, I think that there are many people who find it to be exquisite for good reason. But I think the readers may want to be warned that their reading investment is going to be marked with deep sadness.

I thought that the audio of this book was excellent. Just a reminder that we have an article on how to make sense of Audible right here.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Right Ho, Jeeves

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh is tasteless, irreverent, perverse, and merciless. These qualities, however, are the source of a strange sanity because they are the means by which we can all have a good laugh. Not only is it quite alright to take things lightly, it is a good habit… We are refreshed more readily by arrant absurdities than by academic analyses. Only a Chestertonian hat-chase on a windy day can bestow the hilarious and humbling reminder that, though man is the steward of nature, he is subject to it at the same time—which is just one of the wonderful jokes of humanity.” – Sean Fitzpatrick, The Imaginative Conservative

At Plumfield and Paideia, it is our mission to focus on the transcendentals: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Reading Right Ho, Jeeves, it might be natural to wonder how in the world P.G. Wodehouse fits into those categories. Wodehouse is witty, satiric, profane, and almost exasperating in the incredible stupidity and vanity of his characters, such as Bertie Wooster. And yet, in all of the head shaking and cringing, we manage to laugh. We laugh because the jokes are smart. We laugh because it is too stupid not to be funny. We laugh because it makes us feel free of some of the worldly weight that preoccupies our normal day. Jeeves’ long suffering resonates with us, and Bertie’s desire to be thought well of, coupled with his failure to achieve respect, amuses even the most sympathetic of us. This idiosyncratic pair is classic comedic entertainment.

In 1915, P.G. Wodehouse first introduced us to Bertie (Wooster) and his manservant (Reginald) Jeeves in the short story “Extricating Young Gussie.” In 1917, “Extricating Young Gussie” re-appeared in a collection of short stories called The Man With Two Left Feet. For the next 17 years, Wodehouse would continue to delight readers with 36 more Jeeves and Wooster short stories.

In 1934, Wodehouse gave us the first full length Jeeves and Wooster novel, Thank You, Jeeves. Slightly atypical of standard Jeeves and Wooster fare, the duo have had a falling out. In Thank You, Jeeves, Bertie has a new Butler and Jeeves has a new employer. By the end of the novel, however, everything is set aright and the duo settle into a long career of full-length novels. Over the next 40 years, the valet and his gentleman employer appear together in ten more novels, plus more short stories and a stage play.

Right Ho, Jeeves is the first “typical” full-length Jeeves and Wooster novel. As such, our book club chose it as our November, 2016 read because we thought it would be a good entry point for new readers. Typical of Jeeves and Wooster, it is jocular, prewar English Upper Class, and a bit Oscar Wilde-like (in the style of The Importance of Being Earnest). While the novel involves a good amount of alcohol, a touch of the vulgar, many politically incorrect jokes, and the Shakespearean use of the word a**  every few paragraphs, it still manages to be pretty wholesome and rather hilarious.

Part of the humor in these stories comes from the way in which Wodehouse has constructed the primary characters. Bertie Wooster is a wealthy and useless playboy. No one in his acquaintance dislikes him, but neither do they respect him. Jeeves, on the other hand, is bright, strong, and firmly in control of all situations. In Right Ho, Jeeves, Bertie is tortured by the fact that everyone moves into his sphere solely to gain the assistance of Jeeves in their personal affairs. Bertie acknowledges that Jeeves is a genius but his wounded ego (over a dinner coat in particular) has him routinely telling people that Jeeves “has gone off,” insinuating that Jeeves is losing his touch. Every remedy that Bertie tries to employ for his friends’ troubles causes more trouble instead of effecting solution. In the meantime, Jeeves has been bound by Bertie to not interfere. And yet, good natured Jeeves does interfere. The comedy is ripe.

Many of Wodehouse’s detractors have passed him off as superficial and only marginally funny. His defenders like Evelyn Waugh, Hillaire Belloc, Rudyard Kipling, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett, however, speak of the genius behind the comedy and the subtlety in particular. I was a philosophy major in college, so I cannot escape the comparison to Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic. In Jeeves and Wooster, we have two characters whose strengths are dependent on the other letting them be strong. If Wooster were a less worthy character, Jeeves would not shine through. If Jeeves were a less humble servant, Wooster would be pathetic instead of funny. It is in their co-dependence on each other for power that makes the comedy so full and delightful.

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Right Ho, Jeeves is some of the most delicious brain candy I have read. It is a very well constructed situational comedy that bears more than one reading. I found that watching the Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry “Jeeves and Wooster” series enhanced my enjoyment of the story. Necessarily, the two episodes which cover this novel (S1, Ep 4-5) are trimmed, but the spirit of the story is absolutely present and a treat to watch.

Right Ho, Jeeves is a very good place to enter into the Jeeves and Wooster comedic drama. Some readers, however, may want to preface this novel with a quick reading of the short story “Jeeves Takes Charge” from Carry On, Jeeves. This volume of collected short stories contains Wodehouse’s recounting of how Jeeves came to work for Wooster. It is gratifyingly funny and will give a reader the necessary background to really appreciate the dynamic between the pair. The text of that short story can be found online here. The t.v. series episode (S1, Ep 1) covering this short story is absolutely perfect.

We would love to have you join us for our Facebook book club, Potato Peel Pie Book Community. During November, we will be discussing Right Ho, Jeeves in our special discussion group: PPPS: Jeeves and Wooster. If you are reading this after November 2016, please know that we love latecomers and that if our group link works, we are still happy to discuss this comedy!

Audible has a number of options for Jeeves and Wooster. I personally strongly prefer Jonathan Cecil. The cover art is hideous but the recording is top notch. I was intrigued by The World of Jeeves because it is said to contain all of the Jeeves and Wooster short stories. My copy hasn’t arrived yet to verify this.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Princess Bride

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In 1973 William Goldman penned a quirky but endearing story about a beautiful princess, a mysterious pirate, a lovable giant, a Spanish swordsman, a cunning Sicilian, a six-fingered villain, a duplicitous prince, and an out-of-work miracle man. Perhaps a little bit like A.A.  Milne’s Once On A Time, The Princess Bride is tough to categorize or even describe. It is a romance. It is a fantasy. It is an adventure story. And, notably, it is a comedy.

Typically in our reviews, we try to capture the essence of a story and highlight its merits while also drawing attention to things that readers may wish to know in advance of reading. In this review, however, we are going to cover slightly different ground. We are going to assume that most readers have, at least, a passing knowledge of The Princess Bride either from the movie or from the book. We are going to assume that readers know that it is a bit of a spoof on a fairy tale. Instead of focusing on plot points or story arc, we are going to focus on format, family friendliness, and the abridgement joke.  

Let’s walk through the timeline because it matters:

1973 Book

In 1973 William Goldman authored an entirely new story called The Princess Bride. In it, Goldman alleges that the story between the covers is an abridgement of an old story that his father told to him many years ago. This is a literary device. Goldman is making his first great joke on this wild adventure that we are about to go on. Stretching the joke a bit, Goldman explains that when he was a child, his father read to him from an old Floriense satire. When Goldman wants to revisit the story as an adult, he realizes that his father edited the story, reading “only the good parts” and leaving out hundreds of pages of “boring parts.” Again, this is just all part of his joke. There is no abridgement. Also included in this original introduction, Goldman includes fictional biographical details about himself. In essence he wrote himself into the cast of characters.

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Throughout the book, Goldman is really telling two stories. The Princess Bride and his own fictional creation of the “abridgement.” The main text of The Princess Bride is printed in regular font while the “abridgement notes” are in italics. So, while we are getting caught up in the romance between Buttercup and Westley, we are constantly being interrupted with funny details about Goldman’s fictional life and fictional struggles to abridge this old text.

1987 Movie

In 1987, after multiple failed attempts, inconceivably, The Princess Bride made it to the big screen. The funny, romantic, and sweet medieval adventure was at best a modest success. Most involved with it, however, considered it a bit of a failure. It didn’t receive the critical success that they were hoping for and it was misunderstood by audiences. In his memoir As You Wish, Carey Elwes attributes some of the “failure” to a terrible movie poster which only furthered the confusion about what the film was really about.

A funny thing happened in 1988. Movie rental stores could not keep the movie on their shelves. Not only was it being constantly checked out, it was being re-checked out. According to Carey, it became a cult favorite which radically increased its fan base. As the movie gained traction, it gained acclaim. Significantly, it became a family film that could be enjoyed at nearly all ages and stages. In recent decades, children of the original cult have initiated their children into the story, making it even more of a cultural icon.

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As the movie became a sensation, the book re-emerged onto the scene. Moviegoers wanted to read the book and many anniversary printings with extras were ordered. My copy is the beautiful 30th Anniversary printing. In it, I have a second introduction which takes the abridgement joke even farther. Sadly, I also have the “Buttercup’s Baby” sample chapter. (I will explain why I say “sadly” further on.)

2003 Audiobook

In 2003, Rob Reiner recorded an abridged audio version of the story for Phoenix Books. And when I say “abridged” this time, it really is abridged. The audiobook run time is only 2 hours and 34 minutes which is a super thin retelling of the 496 page book.

Family Friendliness

To answer the extremely important question about how family friendly The Princess Bride is, we have to break it into its parts. The movie is delightful and 99% wholesome. There is the famous line about perfect breasts, but for the most part it is a cringe-free family movie. It may have some slight curse words, but I don’t remember hearing them. If you are concerned, do preview it ahead of time.

The book is another story entirely. There are two ways to read the book: an edited way or the regular way. If you plan to hand the book to a child or do it for a family read aloud, be warned that the introductions have some provocative material in them. Goldman’s character is flirting with a “hot” actress while he is “happily” married, and that scene is far longer and more detailed than it needs to be. There are quite a few other undesirable bits in it as well. While some parts of the introduction are really very funny, other parts are just plain uncomfortable.

In the interest of family friendliness, I would skip the introductions and ALL of the Goldman commentary throughout the story (or keep in any parts you like and eliminate those you don’t).

Additionally, “Buttercup’s Baby” is awful in every way. It has an uncomfortable conversation between Westley and Buttercup about how they are going to lie together in bed so as to further their romance. (Keep in mind, she is technically married to Prince Humperdink). The labor and delivery of Buttercup’s baby is ridiculous and far more detailed than any reader needs. The flashback scene for Inigo is out of place and more than a little suggestive. At the end of the day, no one really wants to hear how Fezzik delivers a baby by c-section. Or how Fezzik dies. No one really wants to know about Inigo’s romantic fantasies. And, for a guy who just won the day, Westley says very little and isn’t good for all that much. It is just bad writing and in very bad taste. Frankly, I might even cut the pages out of my book.

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Another option for making it family friendly would be to get the audiobook. Rob Reiner reads it beautifully. Preview it first to determine its appropriateness to your family values but know that it is mostly just the parts that made it into the movie.

Goldman claims that he wrote The Princess Bride for his real life daughters who wanted a story about princesses and brides. The story that he crafted for his daughters is one that many of us would enjoy sharing with our children. The story that he crafted for himself is one that I regret having to read. For my family, I am willing to watch the movie again and again with my children. I am also willing to do the read aloud by only reading the fairy tale portions. I will likely turn my older kids loose on the audiobook at some point. The introductions, adult narrative and “Buttercup’s Baby” are simply not good food for anyone in my house.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Brideshead Revisited

“Read and re-read. Re-reading we always find a new book.” ~C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, “On Stories” (1947)

I have always been a big fan of re-reading. While most good books can support many readings, certain excellent books almost seem to require multiple readings before the reader can claim to really understand what the text is trying to say. Brideshead Revisited is one of those books.

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I first read Brideshead Revisited just over a year ago. On my first reading, I was overcome with a sense of sadness. I thought that I understood the book, but I couldn’t understand why so many well respected critics and authors consider it extraordinary. On my first reading I thought that it was what would happen if you put The Great Gatsby, Downton Abbey, and just about anything from Flannery O’Connor into a blender and pulsed until well mixed. I despise The Great Gatsby. I love Downton Abbey. I respect and admire Flannery O’Connor greatly. But I was still baffled by why Evelyn Waugh was considered “so good.” The second reading changed all of that for me.

“The re-reader is looking not for actual surprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness… It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time…in literature we do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Til then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness. The children understand this well when they ask for the same story over and over again, and in the same words. They want to have again the “surprise” of discovering that what seemed Little-Red-Riding-Hood’s grandmother is really the wolf. It is better when you know it is coming: free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness of the peripeteia.” ~C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, “On Stories” (1947)

It is mid-October in Wisconsin as I write this. The weather has been gorgeous and we have had some stunning color in the leaves this fall. On a recent sabbath afternoon we went to the Green Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for a five mile hike. It was incredible and I was taking pictures the whole time. I found the hike to be enchanting and everything was a new discovery. A few days later my husband had some time off from work so we went back. This time we knew exactly where we wanted to walk. I knew which photos I wanted to take. The second walk gave me the time to really notice things and study the detail.

On our first hike, we noticed that everyone was feeding the geese and the ducks, but we didn’t consider it all that special. On our second hike, however, we stopped to buy cracked corn and we spent more than an hour feeding the birds and getting lost in the magic of it. I got pictures of these personable, tame fowl eating out of our hands, and I took videos of the kids playing with them. I saw the personality of certain geese that was lost on me the first time. I even found one delightful goose with a broken wing who had totally escaped my notice a few days before.

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My second reading of Brideshead Revisited was just like this. Because I knew what would be there, and I had a sense of how I was going to walk through the paths, I was able to slow down, and I was able to notice the details. On the second reading I heard Charles’ voice differently. I caught the meaning of his asides. I saw Sebastian not as a teddy bear carrying freak, but as a frustrated soft soul who was terribly lost. I saw Julia not as an ice queen, but as Lady Mary from Downton Abbey in some striking ways. What had been a strange, interesting, but depressing post-modern tome had become a gorgeous exploration of vocation and faith.

“Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” – Carl Jung

This is the book about the Good Friday in our lives. Through Charles, Sebastian, Julia, and Lord Marchmain, we see what happens when we choose to remain locked into the attitude of Good Friday, and resist the mercy and graces that Easter pours out on us. In Brideshead Revisited, we get lost in the plot and forget that Easter will come rushing in whether “bidden or not bidden”. And as Easter redemption arrives in the hearts of each character, it presents itself as unsettling and wildly disruptive. One by one, each character finds his way, but never by the same path as another, and never without a war within himself.

“Lady Marchmain, no I am not on her side; but God is, who suffers fools gladly; and the book is about God.” – Eveyln Waugh to Nancy Mitford 1945

The first time I read this book, it was unsatisfying but good. The second time I read this book, I fell in love. I understand that this book still may be a bit of an acquired taste, but I am confident that it is a true book. Evelyn Waugh recoiled at comparisons between him and Flannery O’Connor, but I think they share a certain way of seeing the world. While the manners of Waugh’s characters are more sophisticated than those of O’Connor’s, they accomplish the same goal. When examined closely, both sets of characters reveal things to us about ourselves that we would prefer to ignore.

I think that to understand this book, we need to believe that like real life, characters in well told stories only show us a part of themselves. It is our job as readers to color in the rest.

“Yes I know what you mean, he is dim, but then he is telling the story and it is not his story… I think the crucial question is: does Julia’s love for him seem real or is he so dim that it falls flat; if the latter, the book fails plainly.” – Eveyln Waugh to Nancy Mitford 1945

On my first reading, no. I did not think that Julia’s love for Charles ever felt real or substantial. On my second reading, absolutely. And his for her. On the second reading, I could see how, from the very start, this was always about their love for each other. Maybe this is why this reminds me so acutely of Downton Abbey. There seems to me to be so much Matthew and Mary in this.

“Brideshead and Cordelia are both fervent Catholics; he’s miserable, she’s bird-happy. Julia and I are half-heathen; I am happy, I rather think Julia isn’t; mummy is popularly believed to be a saint and papa is excommunicated – and I wouldn’t know which of them is happy. Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesn’t seem to have much to do with it, and that’s all I want…” -Sebastian to Charles, Book 1 – Chapter 4

Early in the text, Waugh has Lady Marchmain read aloud a story from Chesterton’s Father Brown. Much later in the story, Cordelia recalls that reading of Chesterton and this part specifically: “I caught him… with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” I think that in Brideshead we see that God, who suffers fools gladly, has a hook in all of us. In His way, He twitches the thread to draw us back to Him. Waugh beautifully recounts how God has twitched the thread in the lives of each of these characters and then explores the consequences of how their free will responds to that twitch.

This book is so much more substantial than I originally thought. It is hard to review without being specific about spoilers. But, as Waugh says, this is about God. A patient and invested God who loves us despite our free will and efforts to run away. In his essay on George MacDonald, Chesterton paraphrased MacDonald to say, “God is easy to please and hard to satisfy.” I think that Waugh, a lover of Chesterton, was hitting that note throughout this book.

Some friends and I set up a tiny Facebook group to discuss Brideshead Revisited. If you decide to read and want some company, feel free to join in the conversation. You can find it here.

I have this in several spines and well as audio. While I love my vintage spine best, this one has the best formatting. The audio is narrated by Jeremy Irons and is… incomparable. The BBC mini series starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews is classically BBC – a very fair retelling done beautifully.  The newer movie is prettier, but moodier and less true to the story. In fact, I think that the movie misunderstands the book a bit. I hate saying that because I love the cast and Emma Thompson in particular.