Saturday, January 24, 2015

Readings in History -- The Civil War. The British Regency. And Campy Espionage?

Last night the Notting Hill Napoleons, our peerless book club of 23 years, met at the Malek home for a stimulating discussion of Jeff Shaara's moving novel of the 1863 Vicksburg campaign, A Chain of Thunder. 

The general conclusion?

We liked the book very much.

But then that's no surprise. Our booklists of recent years have regularly included one of Shaara's titles. He is an excellent, fair minded historian who writes with insight, empathy, and careful prose.

But several in the group last night suggested this novel may have been their favorite of all the Shaara novels we've read, particularly because he featured among his other characters (Grant, Sherman, Pemberton, Johnston, and others), a female civilian who provided an intense look at what went on in Vicksburg itself during the long siege.

It's a very good book.

My other post-Epiphany reading has involved much different literature. Indeed, one might be hard pressed to justify even calling it literature. But it's been a lot of fun. And it has provided its own sense of history; namely my own.

You see, on one of the 12 Days of Christmas, I gave Claire a rather campy gift of 14 cheap paperback books I had found on E-bay, books that were based on the 1960's TV series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  Claire got a kick out of the gift (a few days before she had given me a download of the whole second season of the show) but she knew my present wasn't only for a gag. She knew full well that I couldn't wait to read them myself. And that's exactly what happened. They are very quick reads but they're full of page-turning adventures as Napoleon Solo, Ilya Kuryakin, Mr. Waverly and the rest of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement battle the evil minions of T.H.R.U.S.H.

Like I said, fun stuff, especially for someone who appreciated U.N.C.L.E. the first time around.

And the other book? Well, that's one I'm re-reading from years past. It's Pride and Prejudice by the incomparable Jane Austen. I probably should be reading another of her masterpieces, Persuasion, since that's the NHN selection for February, but I can't wait any longer to read P. D. James' 2011 mystery that I just bought before the holidays. It is Death Comes to Pemberley. But since James uses the scenes and characters from Pride and Prejudice for her mystery, I wanted to make sure I had those clear in my mind.

So Pride, then Pemberly, and then Persuasion.

Unless I find where I can order those few Man from U.N.C.L.E. paperbacks that I'm missing. If so, I'll probably push everything else back a bit.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

When Battle Is Your Calling

"When principles that run against your deepest convictions begin to win the day, then battle is your calling, and peace has become sin; you must, at the price of dearest peace, lay your convictions bare before friend and enemy, with all the fire of your faith." (Dutch statesman and theologian, Abraham Kuyper)

The painting is “Knight at the Crossroads” by Russian artist Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Good Advice

Monday, January 05, 2015

Book Notes from Recent Facebook Posts

* Since Claire and I celebrate all 12 Days of Christmas (today is Day 10), our reading is still Christmas-oriented. I mentioned the other day having enjoyed Joseph Bottum's "Wise Guy" from Amazon Kindle this weekend as well as a couple of Charles Dicken's Christmas ghost stories, "The Haunted House" and "The Signal-man." Well, today I re-read a delightful and warm-hearted novella written by our late friend Calvin Miller. It's called "Snow." I have always recommended it highly and re-reading it today didn't change my mind a bit. You can, by the way, get a very inexpensive copy by following this link.

* The cold-hearted flight of NCAA bowl games from the networks to the cable channels continues. Just a few years ago, my New Year's Day was completely filled with college football. This year I was able to That's right, there was but a single bowl game available on network TV. But, hey; it's not all bad. I was able to spend more time starting the year off with good books; specifically, a re-reading for the nth time of Charles Dickens' remarkable "The Haunted Man" and a first time enjoyment of one of Joseph Bottum's sparkling $.99 Kindle singles from Amazon, "Wise Guy."

* Fox News video clip focusing on “Unbroken” author, Laura Hillenbrand

Friday, October 17, 2014

We're Voting Early (Our Book Club, That Is)

Because one of the couples in our book club cannot make it to our Whispering Pines weekend in Nebraska City next month, we decided to go ahead and vote on our 2015 booklist at our next meeting -- which is tonight. I'm listing below the books that Claire and I are submitting.

Will they make it? Who knows? The members of our noble company once enjoyed greater unanimity in the types of books we enjoyed but, in recent years, we've seen much wider differences of taste, opinions, time available, and so on. Some like more modern stuff while others, like Claire and I, would like to stay with classic literature. (If there was an 18th and 19th Century-only club, we'd probably join it!) Some want to avoid long novels. Some want to avoid dialect (Sir Walter Scott, for instance). Some prefer lighter themes while others go for the Russians. Some absolutely refuse to read anything on a Kindle, making some choices too expensive to buy in hard copies.

You get the idea. Finding literature that the whole group wants to read is a difficult business. But, like we always do, we'll give it a go.

Anyhow, here's the Hartfords' list of suggestions for this time around. If these are the kind of books you like reading and discussing, by all means, let us know. We're always ready for a book conversation over lunch or coffee. In fact, we're even open to the possibility of joining (or starting) another book club.

Why not? What else are we going to do? Watch TV? Yuck.

Denny & Claire’s Recommendations for 2015 
(All books listed have been read in full by the endorsers.)

1) Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – Russia. Revolution. Romance. What won’t you like about this grand novel? Length? C’mon. We used to read these long novels in years past and loved them. We can do it again. And, if need be, we take an extra month to read it. No big deal. (648 pages. Several used, cheap copies around. $11 for a Kindle edition. 5 copies in the local library.)
If you don’t want this particular re-read, would you consider:
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Doestoevsky?
Or Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott?
Or 1984 by George Orwell?

2) Drums Along the Mohawk by Walter D. Edmonds -- Gilbert and Lana Martin are newlywed pioneers trying to make a home in the Mohawk Valley just as the American Revolution is launched. But the Martins’ hopes for a life together must not only overcome poverty, hard work and extreme loneliness, but they are also violently challenged by Indians, British soldiers, and the Loyalists devoutly set against the new nation. Here's a much different view of the Revolution because this story isn't set in Philadelphia or Boston but rather on the distant New York frontier. (580 pages. Several used copies around at cheap prices. 2 copies in the local library.)

3) Richard III by Edward de Vere (aka William Shakespeare) – From 1993 through 2003, the Napoleons voted in a Shakespeare play. We suggest we return to the Bard this year with this riveting historical drama. The writing is beautiful. The potential for meaningful conversation is enormous. The educational value is immense. And a Shakespeare play probably takes less time than any novel we’ll read…even if you throw in watching a good movie version. (Available just about everywhere, including your own library at home.)

4) Knight Without Armor by James Hilton -- Published in 1933, this thriller is quite a bit different from the author’s better-known novels, Random Harvest, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Lost Horizon. This deals with Ainsely Fothergill, a lost young man who begins a career as a journalist covering the Russo-Japanese war (1903) but, through an unusual series of events, becomes a reluctant spy for the British government in revolutionary Russia.  (297 pages. $2.99 at Kindle. $8 at ABE Books. Free through Gutenberg.)

5) Run Silent, Run Deep by Commander Edward L. Beach, Jr. -- No, this isn't much like the Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster flick of the same name. It is, in fact, much more interesting and worthwhile. The novel provides a detailed look at submarine service during World War II through the eyes of one crew, but the reader learns a lot about how subs worked, training, strategy, Pearl Harbor, and matters of the human soul. The plot also involves a very daring adventure against a Japanese war genius. Beach himself served on submarines in the Pacific during the war and his writing is terrific.  This book has made it to NHN Alternative status before. Let’s take it all the way. (343 pages. Used from $1 at ABE Books.)

6) Miss Bishop by Bess Streeter Aldrich -- Ella Bishop comes to college as an eager, curious and dedicated young student…and stays as a teacher through many long and lovely (though sometimes lonely) years. This is a touching story of integrity, unrequited love, loyalty, and passion for teaching young people. And of course, Aldrich is a Nebraska author. (337 pages. $2.99 Kindle and $5.89 at ABE Books. Free at Project Gutenburg. 4 copies in the local library.)

7) The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers -- A tense, deeply moving novel about the escape of a young Communist from a Nazi concentration camp and his ongoing efforts to avoid recapture. (344 pages. Used starting at $1 at ABE Books.)

8) Mistress Wilding by Rafael Satabini – Rebellion. Romance. Heroes and villains. Chivalry and adventure. A rousing adventure from one our favorite authors, set against the intriguing background of the Duke of Monmouth's return to England during the reign of King James. (262 pages. Free on Kindle and $4.99 at Amazon).

9) Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier -- "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." You loved the movie; I think you’ll love the book – even though you’ll find the ending quite a bit different.  Du Maurier is an incomparable craftsman and in Rebecca she has created one of America’s most intense and intriguing gothic novels.  416 pages.  (Used copies starting at $.01 at Amazon.  10 copies in the local library.)

10) Persuasion by Jane Austen – Jane Austen might have saved her very best for her last novel. Though connected a bit to Northanger Abbey (the Royal Navy, the city of Bath, family complications), the story finds Austen exploring a more darkly satirical perspective than in her other work. But just for a season. In the end, there is a very positive, uplifting tone and message. Her treatment of the various ways in which a person is “persuaded” to be something they are not is terrific. And, not surprisingly, it is a masterfully crafted novel. (272 pages. Both new and used copies abound at inexpensive prices. 13 copies in the local library.)

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Titus Andronicus: A Bloody Mistake

Without a doubt, the worst play attributed to William Shakespeare was the bloody tragedy, “Titus Andronicus.” I’m going through my own Shakespeare re-reading festival this summer and autumn and I felt obliged to go through this horrid tale again, the first time since my undergraduate days. (Back in the late 30s, weren’t they?)

Anyhow, I pass along my recommendation to read Shakespeare’s gems but, under no circumstances, should you bother yourself with this nightmare of torture, rape, mutilation, murder, cannibalism, and two of the most loathsome villains (Aaron and Tamora) in literature. Oh, did I mention that the thing is poorly written too?

By the way, and let’s keep this between you and me (and Coleridge and Eliot, who agree with me), I don’t think Shakespeare even wrote the thing.

One other note. This play has not been well-received throughout much of its history. Ravenscroft thought it an “indigested heap of rubbish” in the 17th Century. Johnson despised it in the 18th Century. And the Victorians rightly condemned it as stupid and ridiculously violent. It has only been in the post-modern decadence emerging from the 1950s that “Titus Andronicus” has found its praises.

And the statement that makes about modern culture may be the greatest tragedy of all.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Against All Hope: Denny Reviews One of His Favorite Books

There are certain books reflecting the truth of one’s own time that carry so much weight, so much moral relevance that they are truly required reading. I believe that one of these books is Against All Hope by Armando Valladares, the powerful testimony of freedom, faith and spiritual triumph written by a survivor of 22 years in Castro’s barbaric prisons. The book was written nearly 30 years ago but I find that re-reading it every few years helps keep my spiritual focus sharp and my counter-culture convictions strong.

Armando Valladares, like so many thousands, was an innocent victim of Castro’s paranoia and ruthlessness. Valladares was sent to prison simply for voicing his dislike of Communism. He wasn’t an agitator or a rebel; he had never taken part in any anti-government action at all. But it was the mere potential for opposition that Fidel feared so much and so into the prisons went businessmen, priests, soldiers who had fought for him (and for what they mistakenly thought would result in a free Cuba), students, preachers, laborers.

Thousands were herded into the grimiest, most horrific prisons imaginable. There they faced various tortures, including beating, starvation, lack of medical care, and innumerable other injustices -- including the ever-busy firing squads.

Valladares had looked forward to a prosperous career in the national bank before his arrest and lifetime sentence to prison. Castro ended those plans forever. His sentencing, moreover, was without any court procedure at all. Again, like so many others, Castro and his Communist gangsters decided Valladares was to become nothing but another brutalized political prisoner.

But it didn't work out that way.

In prison Valladares embraced the Christian faith (which had previously been but a nominal part of his experience) and allowed God to mold him into a prayerful and  and resolute freedom fighter. Through his survival, his refusal even under the most grueling tortures to join the “Political Rehabilitation,” his prayers and his poems, his nearly successful escape attempt, and his relationships with other heroes, Valladares’ spirit soared even though his weak, broken body suffered. He was not a mere prisoner. He was a spiritual victor, proving the reach of even totalitarian thugs are limited by limits at human soul who responds to God's grace.

For 22 years, the hateful regime punished Valladares until international pressure finally forced their hands. Valladares, a survivor whose writings had already been smuggled out to the world, creating enormous damage to Castro's lying propaganda, was finally released and deported to France.

But, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Armando Valladares kept his promise to his fellow prisoners (many already dead) to honor their bravery and spiritual ideals He would try to tell the world what life in Castro’s “workers’ paradise” was really like.

Against All Hope is that record and that alarm.

For anyone who wants to know the truth about Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution; for anyone honest enough to look into the face of Communism; for anyone who wonders what capacity for endurance and bravery can rise out of the abyss of corruption and cruelty, then Armando Valladares’ Against All Hope is the book to read.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What's the Plot?

Ronald Tobias (professor, writer and documentary filmmaker) once wrote a book describing how the story lines of all novels, plays and movies fall into one of twenty "Master Plots." It's an interesting idea, one that has taken root in many literature classes and book club discussions. Here is Tobias' list.

1. Quest
2. Adventure
3. Pursuit
4. Rescue
5. Escape
6. Revenge
7. The Riddle
8. Rivalry
9. Underdog
10. Temptation
11. Metamorphosis
12. Transformation
13. Maturation
14. Love
15. Forbidden Love
16. Sacrifice
17. Discovery
18. Wretched Excess
19. Ascension
20. Descension.

Like I said, an interesting idea. But the problem is that Tobias' list ends up falling all over itself; that is, there is just too much combination, interconnection and blurring of themes. For instance, what would Tobias select as the "Master Plot" of Homer's Iliad? You see the difficulty. For the Iliad fits every single storyline in the list. No kidding, every single one.

No, I'm afraid Tobias' list is too much like the stuff of life itself. Complex, mixed, ironic, sometimes confused, even contrary. In my own biography (and, I'd guess, yours too), all twenty themes would be competing for the title of master plot.

So how does one best describe a novel's plot? Well, I truly do give kudos to Professor Tobias for giving it a shot (and thereby helping thousands of high school lit students). But I think one of my own high school teachers may have had the best approach. He believed the plot of a story was simply the answer to the question, "And then what happened?"

Mark Twain (In Living Color)

Mark Twain

(From The Civil War in COLOR for the first time, Alex Greig, Daily Mail)

Apparently the colorization of old black and white photos has become a new hobby for several skilled computer geeks. Pretty neat.