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.

 

Posted in Book Lovers Community

GK Chesterton: Architect of Spears

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In my Potato Peel Pie book club we are reading a little Chesterton every week. And by “little,” I mean one essay every Sunday from
In Defense of Sanity. Each week we read and reflect on one short essay or article from G. K. Chesterton and play with the ideas he articulates. Some of the essay are hilarious, some astute, some poignant, and some artistic. Nearly all, however, pair well with a cup of coffee and seem to hit the spot on a Sabbath afternoon. In this article I am ruminating on “The Architect of Spears” from Miscellany of Men and my take on what he has said.

“It is said that the Gothic eclipses the classical by a certain richness and complexity, at once lively and mysterious. This is true; but oriental decoration is equally rich and complex, yet it awakens a widely different sentiment.” – The Architect of Spears

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I emphatically agree. I love how he says things that we intuitively know, but don’t notice as being true. It seems inappropriate to say that there is something about Gothic architecture that inherently communicates something spiritual. It seems as though the modern philosopher would say that if we have any religious association with Gothic architecture it is because we were trained to do so. Perhaps that is right. None the less, I cannot change the fact that as early as sixth grade I knew that there was a spiritual difference between the Taj Mahal, a Chinese pagoda, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

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In my sixth grade social studies class my teacher took us on a world tour. In each region of the world we studied religious architecture. I remember being impressed by the peacefulness of the Taj Mahal. That beautiful rounded dome sat beside a serene pool with a cool sky as a backdrop. I remember thinking that that religion must be one of quietness, stillness, peace, and contemplation.

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I remember studying a Chinese pagoda in detail so that I could build it out of sugar cubes. I remember thinking about how precise it was. How geometric. How organized it’s beauty was. I remember thinking that that must symbolize something organized and balanced and precise about the religion of those people. Something about order and the ordering of energy.

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My parents took me to Europe when I was at the very end of my second grade year. We walked through a lot of cathedrals. We saw a lot of gargoyles. We heard stories about a lot of peaks and spires. I remember walking away from that experience with the clear understanding that cathedrals represent the war between heaven and earth. As man’s soul tries to climb towards heaven, it does so in a garish and assaulting way. It must pull free of all of the earthly trappings and become smaller as it goes higher. The gargoyles remind us that the spiritual world is all around us and both beautiful and hideous. Gothic cathedrals have an ugly kind of beauty. A poetry that communicates that man’s very best effort at beauty will always fall short of the ideal but be better than no attempt at all.

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I really appreciate Chesterton’s short essays like this because they give me the opportunity to play with ideas. In this case, I was taken on a trip down memory lane. As he described the architecture, my mind was flooded with childhood memories of Cathedrals as well as other religious houses. Chesterton prompted me to revisit childish impressions with adult understanding. And exercises like that are satisfying on several levels. While he could not have known that this reader would be taken back to childhood, he probably assumed that many of his readers would be. Since Cathedrals are so commonplace in his homeland, this essay probably struck a childish nerve in many as it did in me. And that, really, is trademark Chesterton. Joseph Pearce’s biography of G.K. Chesterton is entitled Wisdom and Innocence because that was the hallmark of Chesterton’s writing. GKC put a high value on the wisdom and innocence of childhood that we, as adults, must strive to recover. Perhaps as we try to ascend to heaven like Gothic spires, we must become small again.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

Reading Plan: Sara’s Approach

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I grew up loving the Ben Hur film with Charlton Heston. Thanks to Anne Shirley, I discovered that it was based on a book by Lew Wallace and now I love the book even more than the movie.

There is a key moment in the story of Ben Hur when Judah’s character is evaluating a team of horses for chariot racing. Judah knows that he has to arrange these horses in such a way that he can maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. He must carefully balance their speed, their personalities, and their preferences so that he can get a team that moves like one animal. That piece of the story has always stuck with me as a metaphor for many of the things in my life that I want to bring into balance.

Over the years, I have learned to approach my reading a little bit like a charioteer would evaluate his team. There are seasons of my life in which I need more of one kind of book than another. There are seasons of my life where I have more time to read than others. And so, a few times a year I take a step back from my routines and prayerfully discern what the foundation of my reading for the next season should be. I pray and I plan, but at the end of the day, all of it is guessing and hoping. Even though I am guessing and hoping, I know that if I prayerfully discern a reading plan for myself, I am more likely to read to my best advantage than if I try to just wing it.

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I am an INFJ. That may tell you a whole lot about me or very little, depending upon your knowledge of and belief in the Myers Briggs typing system. In a nutshell, being an INFJ means that I am the kind of person who takes my reading plan pretty seriously because I live mostly in my head, I wish to read things that matter to me, I would like to have a way of organizing my thoughts and my books, and I love to see connections in what I am reading. Most importantly, I hate to “waste” my reading by not getting the most out of it that I can.

I have taken many different approaches to reading over the years. Some have been perfect for the season that I was in, some have proven to be opportunities for me to learn more about myself and guesswork, and some have just been upended by unforeseen emergencies and stresses. Since forming the Potato Peel Pie Society, however, I have taken my reading plan even more seriously than before because as a group leader I understand that there is a pressure for me to be involved in the book club events. This is a very good kind of peer pressure for me. Because there is an important and valuable invitation for me to be involved in those book clubs, I need to make that reading a priority. In many cases, however, the book club selection is not a book from my desired reading list. And so, balance and scheduling of my reading becomes even more important. If I am going to honestly read along with the group, take care of my spiritual life, read for my vocation, read with my kids, and still have time to read the things that give me pleasure or challenge or satisfaction, then I need some kind of clear plan of attack.

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For me, it really breaks down like this:

  1. I need to have a collection of audiobooks that will keep me company while I do mundane household tasks or exercise. It is best if these are re-reads of old favorites that I wish to review for Plumfield and Paideia. Re-reading those in audio format is a great way to redeem the “lost” time of housework while filling me up with old beauty that can then be summarized and evaluated for others. It gives me a great sense of joy and purpose that makes it easier for me appreciate the undesirable tasks of my primary vocation. For this kind of reading, I read at my own pace as my schedule allows.
  2. I need to read for my soul. This includes daily Scripture study and works of theology or Christian witness. I do this first thing in the morning. Usually I listen to scripture on my morning wake-up walk, then I either keep walking while listening to a religious book (currently I am reading The Creed by Scott Hahn) or return home and study something spiritual with my coffee. For this kind of reading, I read at a pace suggested by my church leaders and my own prayerful discernment.
  3. I need to read for Potato Peel Pie. It is my obligation and my joy to co-lead this book club and I want to be as present as possible in the monthly selections. Depending on the format of the book, that may either be an audiobook I listen to on walks or while I work in my journal, or it may be a spine that I read at bedtime and anywhere I can steal the time to read. For this kind of reading, I am usually trying to read just a bit ahead of the group so that I can be conversant throughout the book club.
  4. I long to read with my “Rabbit Trail Sisters”. We are a group of friends who tackle some scholarly reading together. Presently we are chasing some Chesterton and Shakespeare rabbits because of some things that we read in Wisdom and Innocence and In Defense of Sanity. I do this reading on Sunday afternoons and with my morning coffee during the week. For this kind of reading, we have an aggressive schedule that we tweak as we go. It is a heavy load of reading but it is rooted in the best kind of peer pressure. It is invigorating and exciting for me to read a chapter a week across five or six books that fluidly connect and speak to each other. There are seasons of my life when this would not be possible. Blessedly, right now, I can keep up.

It has not always been so “easy” to prioritize my reading and likely won’t remain this way indefinitely. I am not shooting for forever. I am seeking to be wise with the time that I do have and using it in a way that nourishes me, challenges me, and draws me closer to God’s will for my life.

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UPDATE: I have updated my record keeping and created a printable template for my weekly reading and my book shelf. Check them out here.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

Keeper of the Bees

 

Kathy Andrews is a co-founder of Potato Peel Pie Book Community and writes today about our upcoming August book club, Gene Stratton Porter’s Keeper of the Bees

But I don’t know a thing about bees!  I don’t know a damn thing about bees!”

James Lewis MacFarlane, recently self-discharged from the hospital, finds himself given a job he never dreamed he would be called upon to perform.  He has survived World War I with a terrible physical wound that refuses to heal, walked away from the hospital when he learns he is a hopeless case, and set off on his own grand adventure to see if he can find his own cure. With that, he finds himself in the position to take on beekeeping, though he knows nothing about it.

The Keeper of the Bees is a story of adventures; not just Jamie’s, but most of the other characters in the story as well.  It would be nice if we were all able to just go around in our own little world, doing as we please (or not), never having to worry about how it affects anyone else.  I’m sure you know that is never the case, and it is clearly evidenced in the experiences of the Bee Master,Jamie, The Little Scout, The Storm Girl, and Mrs. Cameron.  Like a Venn Diagram, they all seem to have their own spheres of activity, but they are all connected and affect each other.

How many times in life do we hit up against things of which we know nothing?  Our prayers of, “God, I can’t do this, I don’t know how!” have been on the lips of every one of us at least once in our lives.  And how many times have we heard the voice of God saying, “Trust me.”?

Here’s hoping you enjoy this story of faithfulness, grit, determination, loyalty, and trust.

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