Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Charlie the Lonesome Cougar

I have been packing around a paperback copy of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar for almost 50 years now.  The title is from a Disney movie that came out in 1967.  I may have watched the movie on a Sunday evening “Wonderful World of Disney.”  Perhaps at a drive-in theater!  In 1968, Scholastic Books published a book based on the screenplay.  I loved getting those Scholastic book orders every month or so, and I loved books about animals.  The book is only 78 pages long.  I probably paid a precious quarter for it.

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When the book came to mind recently, I wondered if I should risk ruining it for myself by reading it again.  My desire to know whether it is good stuff or junk was stronger than my wish to let the book and movie remain pleasant memories.   My conclusion about the book is that it’s sweet and wholesome.  The story is light with plenty of humor.  Animal-loving children can enjoy imagining having a cougar for a pet.  Adults will be aware that that can come to no good, but will fall in love with Charlie anyway.

Jess is a young man who works for a lumber company in the Pacific Northwest.  One day, while out marking trees in the woods, he discovers a tiny cougar kitten that has somehow been abandoned outside the den.  The baby’s eyes aren’t even open yet.  Who could leave the helpless kitty there to starve?

Mark Van Cleefe, the author who converted the screenplay to book form, writes some endearing descriptions of the kitten learning about his world.  Everything is new to Charlie, the cougar.  A blowing leaf crumbles under his paw, a fuzzy dandelion makes him sneeze.   If he hadn’t tumbled down the hill when coming face-to-face with a growling badger, that encounter could have ended badly.  When he starts a game of tag with a squirrel, he gets himself stuck in a tree and Jess has to rescue him.  Van Cleefe also periodically reports on Charlie’s age and growth so we get a picture of how quickly he grows into a huge cat.  At two years old he is 7 feet long and weighs over 160 pounds.  Charlie is no longer a housecat.

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The best parts of the story are when Charlie roams in the wild. Charlie’s interactions with the lumber men have more of a feel of set-ups for short, funny, or heart-racing scenes that build toward the inevitable parting of the man and the wild animal.  When Charlie accidentally wanders off into the wilderness, we see him face the challenge of surviving on his own.  He has to become a wild cougar rather than a pet that takes his daily food for granted.  We see how much of the life of a wild animal is taken up with self-defense and finding food.  For children who may not yet be interested in studying animals, I think his encounters with other creatures could open a door of investigation.  With great interest, Charlie watches as a bear catches fish.  He doesn’t learn how to fish for himself, but he becomes adept at stealing fish from the bear.  Then the bear moves on and Charlie is on his own again.

The lumber company Jess works for floats logs down the river to the mill.  A floating bunkhouse and kitchen raft follow.  Charlie accidentally sets the kitchen raft free of its mooring with Jess asleep inside.  The raft drifts into a log jam where the men have just lit a fuse for the dynamite set to break up the jam.  Charlie rides a log down the river, disembarks onto the log jam, and picks up the dynamite, attracted to it by the long “string” attached.  Will he respond in time to Jess’s hollering for him to drop it?  Of course he will. It’s Disney. Everything is going to be fine.  But chaos and much damage will ensue.

It is the company manager who finally tells Jess that he will have to stop bringing Charlie to work.  So, Jess has to cage his cat.  One night Charlie scents another cat, a female.  He escapes, goes for a romp, can’t find his way home, and spends the winter learning to fend for himself in the wild.  When he finds his way back to the lumber camp the next spring, there is more chaos in the camp and  everyone thinks Charlie has gone bad.  Jess shows up just as the manager is about to shoot the cornered cat.  I remember this scene being very intense when I was a child, but it isn’t drawn out too long, and it is very satisfying when Charlie remembers Jess and lets himself be led out of danger.

The next day, Jess takes Charlie to a wildlife refuge where he sets the cat free to live happily ever after.  Charlie meets up with his girlfriend and they amble off into the sunset.  The scenario will sound familiar to lovers of such stories as Gentle Ben and Rascal.  Though the pet will be missed for a long time, the wild animal really will be happier in the wild.  

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I was concerned that the movie I loved as a child would seem silly now; a string of slapstick situations with a giant cat living out of his natural element.  It was not.  The scenes of confrontation between cat and man’s world might seem a bit contrived to movie-savvy adults, but it turns out that most of the time is spent showing Charlie in the wild.  The thin plot almost seems more of an excuse to follow a cougar around with a camera than a real attempt to show what life would be like with a gigantic housecat.  Animal experts may find plenty of diversions from the realm of possibility, but I find the nature scenes wholesome and lovely.

There is an extended scene near the beginning where Charlie has wandered off to survey his neighborhood.  He encounters a raccoon cub, a fox kit, and a young pine marten.  Then he plays with a bear cub until the sow has to rescue Charlie and her cub from a male bear.  Mama wins the fight with the male when Charlie and the cub break the tree branch from which they’ve been watching the battle and land on the male bear’s head.  It’s a bit silly, but mostly fun, and the scene with Charlie and the cub napping together in a hollow log is darling.

Charlie’s foray into the wild after becoming lost in the wilderness is a large chunk of the movie.  It is more like one of Disney’s nature films than a regular movie.  Charlie and the female cougar romp and slide in the snow.  Charlie roams through some stunning scenery.  As Charlie has never had to hunt for food, he has to learn by watching other animals.  When the female cougar catches a rabbit, he expects her to share.  She does not.  The rabbit killing is done off scene, as is the killing of a deer later, once Charlie becomes an accomplished hunter.

My dad and his dad were loggers in Oregon, so I enjoyed watching the lumber company prepare for the spring log drive down the river.  They are shown breaking up log jams, the narrator explains how the cookhouse raft and bunkhouse raft (wanigans) follow the lumberjacks, and there is a short birling competition which Charlie joins.  When Charlie is chased by a bounty hunter with his dogs, Charlie escapes by doing a log-riding trick from his kittenhood, this time down a flume.

I am quite pleased that I can recommend this book and the movie for children of any age.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Incredible Journey

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Today I am bawling into my laundry. My son read The Incredible Journey by Shelia Bunford a few weeks ago and begged me to read it. As I am writing this, I am ignoring the stack of notes I have from ten other books which I have read and need to review. I was worried about reading another book that I don’t have time to review, but I could not miss the opportunity to read something that my son was excited about. Given the volume of housework I have to get done, I opted for the Megan Follows audiobook from Audible. (Yes, THAT Megan Follows from Anne of Green Gables. She does audiobooks? Who knew?!) As I cleaned out closets in preparation for warmer weather clothing this weekend, I cried over the beauty of this story.

If ever a story was more aptly named than this one, I am not aware of it. To steal from Bunford, this story was incredible. A number of animal stories have some hefty sadness in them, and I respect why that it is.  This one, however, plays much more in the camps of perseverance, loyalty, healthy fear, and triumph. It is a glorious story of friendship and adventure. Animal lovers and naturalists will find much to love in Burnford’s storytelling.

When my nine-year-old son was reading this book, he would not come up for air. The story was gripping in places, hilarious in other places, and generally very intriguing. At mealtimes he would pepper the family conversation with tidbits he had learned from The Incredible Journey, like why Siamese cats have a crooked tail – so that they could safeguard the rings of Egyptian princesses who were bathing in the Nile river. The story is written in a friendly voice, it tells of an arduous and dangerous adventure, but it is also chock full of the kind of naturalist facts and legends that so often impress little boys.

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When the story opens, Luath (a young labrador retriever), Bodger (an old English bulldog), and Tao (a regal old Siamese cat) think that they have been abandoned by their human companions. Consequently, they embark on a three hundred mile journey across treacherous Northern Ontario in a search for their humans. Their journey is, as the name implies, nothing short of incredible.

During the journey, the pets experience some perilous encounters in which they accumulate scars and suffer life-changing injuries. Throughout, the reader experiences some genuine fear for the safety of the animals. While this may be emotionally difficult for a young reader, Burnford’s writing offers us a good amount of solace and helps us to focus on the triumph rather than the hurt. Each challenge renders the animals stronger, more loyal to each other, and more noble. We learn that as the animals persevere through the obstacles, their friendship with each other becomes more central to their individual identity.

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While the animals make this remarkable trek, they are helped along the way by kindly humans. Burnford builds this natural charity into the story in a way that is utterly real. It does not feel fabricated or forced in the least. The animals were pets, after all. They understand their role in the company of humans and they enjoy the comforts that human companionship provides. When the journey is still new and the domesticated animals haven’t found their primal hunting instincts yet, they enjoy the campfire and dinner scraps of Indians who take their visit as a good omen for the harvest. When the animals are truly down and out, they veer off of their path to stop at a hospitable farmhouse. When Tao is backed into a corner by a lynx, it is a hunter who saves him. When Luath’s jaw is infected and nearly swollen shut from porcupine quills, it is a gentle old farmer who lovingly treats the sick dog.

In this story, Burnford captures the intrinsic beauty of domesticated animals who are capable of living two kinds of lives: the primal and the companionable. She based this fictional story on her own pets, and her experience with their vivid personalities makes these characters perfectly real.

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In 1963, Disney made a marvelous movie out of this book. While the movie producers made minor alterations to the story (presumably to remove some of the animal violence) they captured the spirit of the book. The book and the movie rely on non-verbal interaction between the pets. The use of a narrator gives the story an observer’s perspective. When the animals interact with the humans, we listen in on their dialogue in much the same way that they animals are doing. Watching the movie with my kids, I realized that the book and the movie remind me of the book and the movie versions of How The West Was Won. Perhaps it is a silly comparison, but for me, both had the same general tone – a narrator telling of motivated characters who are embarking on a dangerous westward adventure that would require great fortitude, courage, tenacity, and community building. Also like How The West Was Won, these sweeping North American epics are told by narrators who stand at a distance, and in awe of the central characters.

As I said above, my nine-year-old son read this as part of his daily reading with no preparation. I followed up by reading with my ears via Audible. I decided that the book would be a stretch for my seven year old to read independently and a little too scary for my six-year-old to listen to via audiobook. If I had been reading this one aloud, I think that my littlest guy would have been just fine. Our reading stack is just too tall right now for us to sneak this in. So, instead of waiting to read the book, I decided to show the movie on a sick day. I am really glad I did! The movie producers opted to reduce some of the animal violence and they chose to film the scary parts in bright daylight – making them less scary. The movie producers also did such a lovely job filming the human vignettes, that no viewer was permitted to be in doubt of the ultimate happy resolve of the story. It was as if those human characters were serving as cheerleaders, rooting for the animals and promising us that Burnford wasn’t going to let them come to permanent harm. In this way, I can now give the audiobook to my six and seven-year-olds and know that they will enjoy it without fear. They will still have to grapple with the challenges that the animals undergo, but they will not be in doubt of the outcome. That reassurance will help them to love the story and appreciate the heroic struggle of Luath, Bodger, and Tao.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving

We are big fans of Louisa May Alcott here at Plumfield and Paideia. The “Plumfield” portion of our name comes from her iconic Jo March books. While Alcott notably wrote many full length novels for children and young readers, she also wrote many endearing short stories. An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving is one of them.

Thanks to a friend and reader of this website, I discovered this pretty version with illustration from Holly Johnson. I think that it is a wonderful way to read this charming little story.

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The Bassett family in the New Hampshire hills is a large and happy farm family. The story opens on the eve of Thanksgiving with Mrs. Bassett and her older daughters working merrily in the kitchen to prepare a Thanksgiving feast. The baby is sitting in her kitchen crib playing while being highly entertained by all of the commotion. The big boys and little kids come and go protesting hunger. The scene is quaint, homey, and rather charming.

When a visitor rushes up to the farm to report that Mrs. Bassett’s mother is failing fast from a serious illness, Mrs. Bassett and her husband bundle the baby and depart for grandma’s house. Having no servants, the Bassetts charge their oldest children to prepare against an impending storm and to keep everyone warm, well fed, and safe for at least two days until Father returns.

The majority of the story covers the adventures, mishaps, and challenges the children have in their parents’ absence. With classic Alcott flair, there is a bear attack (or is there?), there are some brilliant failures in the kitchen, and all is more or less put right in a very happy ending.

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In 2009, Hallmark made a t.v. movie by the same name. I love the movie. It is practically unrelated to the story, but it is wholesome and charming on its own. The story book is ideal for young children. The movie is for families with older children. The movie has some family tension, a romantic subplot, and some twists and turns. As in most of the Alcott movies, the discerning viewer will be able to see elements of the original Alcott story reworked with modern sensibilities and new story lines.

This sweet little story is perfect for a fireside read aloud after a rich Thanksgiving feast. Utterly wholesome, but also highly imaginative, Alcott tells a story that we want to hear.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

The Importance of Being Earnest

I love stories. While a student at Hillsdale College, I was a theater minor. Between the long hours I logged as Stage Manager and then House Manager, and my appreciation for the art of great storytelling, theater seemed to be a sensible minor to attach to my Philosophy/Religion major. Interestingly, part of why I became a philosophy major was because my favorite professor was a regular actor in our vibrant theater department. Over my years at Hillsdale we did some truly excellent classic plays, and because of my philosophy professor we had incredible conversations about the many aspects of human nature on display in the greats like Taming of the Shrew and The Importance of Being Earnest. I will always be grateful for those incredible conversations.

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Oscar Wilde is a challenging writer. I think that he is most famous for three things: being openly and defiantly bi-sexual, The Picture of Dorian Grey, and this happy and delightfully funny little play, The Importance of Being Earnest. Because of his controversial and raucous personal life and his dark and disturbing Dorian Grey, I was genuinely uneasy about reading The Importance of Being Earnest. I was fearful that it would have themes that I found distasteful. It does not. Not really. In fact, it is English comedy at its best.

Wilde was absolutely a master of witticism. Earnest is a very fast moving and side-splitting comedy. His jabs and jibes are smart and delightful. No one is immune from being both the fool and the hero when it is all said and done. If adults could recapture the wonder and joy of childish play, I think it would look something like this comedy.

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The play itself demands to be heard and/or seen. Reading it on the page is excellent, but hearing it is far better. To that end, I laughed my way through this multi-actor theatrical production via Audible. Performed by stage actors, it really delights the ear and comes alive in the imagination.

The play itself is pretty wholesome. While there is some innuendo, it is generally clean and Victorian. The famously funny movie starring Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Frances O’Connor, Reese Witherspoon, and Tom Wilkinson is a feast for the eyes and is brilliantly acted. That said, it is interpreted artistically (with some modern prejudice) and few opportunities to make it racy were lost. Delightful as the movie is, I caution parents before showing it to their teens. As an example, two of the characters get the name of their lover tattooed in a place usually covered by undergarments. Not only are the tattoos off script, the scenes are designed to be provocative. Another example stages some of the scenes in a raunchy dance parlor. The movie puts more Wilde into Earnest than Wilde did.

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The play itself is absurd and over the top, but somehow, that makes it all the more funny. It seems obvious to me that PG Wodehouse was nodding to Earnest when he created Jeeves and Wooster.

The play is short and can be read or listened to in one afternoon. I think this is an audiobook that I will reach for whenever I am between books and needing a good laugh, world weary, or just in low spirits.

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Posted in Book Lovers Community

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

No talent is wholly wasted unless its owner chooses to hide it in a napkin.

In 1868, Louisa May Alcott published her most famous novel, Little Women, featuring four sisters and their varied experiences of growing into womanhood. The next year she published another beautiful story of the same ilk. An Old Fashioned Girl seemed to me to be one of the first great American coming-of-age stories for wholesome girls. Very different from Little Women, it was, in my opinion, almost more interesting.

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In 1903, Kate Douglas Wiggin published a story that would build on that kind of old-fashioned girl power and contribute to a great standard for stories of its kind. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a lively, moral, creative, and enchanting story about a little girl whose irrepressible good nature gets her into scrapes that are both funny and relatable. Rebecca Rowena Randall is larger than life and absolutely darling.

At this moment the thought gradually permeated Mr. Jeremiah Cobb’s slow-moving mind that the bird perched by his side was a bird of very different feather from those to which he was accustomed in his daily drives.

While reading Rebecca for the first time last year I was struck by how much Wiggin’s style reminded me of Alcott, but her characters reminded me of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s. Rebecca opens with a journey that features a tenderhearted but practically mute old soul and a gregarious little lady who speaks in dreams and poetry. Sound familiar? It was not the first time that I was instantly reminded of the Anne of Green Gables.

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Throughout this story, I had to remind myself that this was set in the American Northeast and not on Prince Edward Island. I also had to convince myself that precocious and cheerful Rebecca was not Anne Shirley (1908), Jerusha (Judy) Abbot (1912), nor Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna (1913). Rebecca predates them all and I cannot escape the suspicion that she may have had a hand in inspiring those other iconic young heroines.

If you happen to be feeling that your faults are too numerous to overcome, rejoice that you have a few warm little faults and be glad you aren’t burdened with an over abundance of chilly virtues.

Like those other worthy stories for girls (and their brothers), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is not only a joy to read, but is also filled with nourishing goodness for readers young and old. Like any great heroine, Rebecca has the right kind of heart but makes a lot of mistakes in learning to use it properly. Like Anne Shirley and Judy Abbot, Rebecca is an aspiring writer who is dependent on the sponsorship of outside benefactors. Like Pollyanna, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm tackles Victorian ideas about the role of children in society, and their ability to bring meaningful, positive change into the lives of their neighbors.

The brimming glass that overflows its own rim moistens the earth about it.

I would recommend Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm to older elementary school-aged listeners and late middle school independent readers. It is utterly wholesome, but probably won’t be terribly interesting to the youngest listeners. The audiobook with Barbara Caruso is wonderful to listen to. Sadly, the Shirley Temple movie is radically different and really ought not to bear the same name.

I would consider this book a “must have” for any good family library. It can be shelved right between Alcott and Montgomery. Because the story covers several years worth of Rebecca’s life, it really is a coming-of-age story. As Rebecca matures, the situations around her also mature. As in Little Women and the early Anne books, readers will walk with Rebecca through loss, some small suffering, and some challenging decisions. As in Pollyanna, Rebecca’s resilient optimism is central to her winning the respect of those who need her love just as much as she needs theirs. Similarly to Daddy Long Legs, Rebecca’s path is made easier because of a mysterious benefactor who ultimately becomes more than just a donor.

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Fancy the job of finding a real mind; of dropping seed in a soil so warm, so fertile, that one knows there are sure to be foliage, blossoms, and fruit all in good time.

This is my favorite copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm – it is out of print but the color plates make it worth the effort to find. This is my daughter’s favorite copy of Rebecca.

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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.