Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Of Dickens, an Autumn Retreat and the 2009 NHN Reading List

The Notting Hill Napoleon's annual autumn retreat is now history but the warm memories of our time together in Nebraska City will help us survive the chill months of winter that are coming our way.

We had a great time (I think I can speak for everyone) with Jeanna Stavas again serving as a most gracious and talented innkeeper there at Whispering Pines Bed and Breakfast. It's a beautiful, comfortable place and we heartily recommend it for pilgrims, wayfarers and solace-seekers of all stripes.

Among our activities this past weekend were our discussion of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, an experiment with a different way of selecting the next year's reading rota, Bill's inventive Napoleons-oriented song (a longstanding tradition) and very delicious meals -- both Jeanna's hearty breakfasts (prospective guests will be pleased to learn that Jeanna serves up much fuller portions than most B&Bs) and the food that we ourselves fixed for several meals: sausage and zucchini soup, lasagna, ham and bean soup, stromboli, corn bread, cheese, rich desserts, and gallons of coffee and tea).

And, of course, there were engaging conversations covering the Bible, spiritual concerns, pro-life issues, politics, history, books, our families, the arts and more.

Regarding the Dickens book, I must tell you that I enjoyed it much more than my last reading. In fact, going over an earlier Book Den entry covering that reading, I confess it was quite wrong in its two basic criticisms.

First of all, this latest time through convinces me that Dickens was not as "gracious" in his sympathies with the French Revolution as I suggested in that earlier post. My bad. The fact is that Dickens depicted the savagery of the mobs, their irrationality and their lust for vengeance extremely well. And Dickens did not excuse the Reign of Terror even though he also characterized the aristocratic regime of Louis XVI's reign as brutally insensitive and unfair. Dicken's objectively painted both "sides" of the violent conflict with blame, "I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth..."

I had written that "Dickens doesn't praise the Revolution, by any means, and yet he fails to capture its envy, its hatred of Christianity, and its sheerly vile lust for blood." Again, I was wrong. Perhaps reading the novel more carefully (including taking notes) in preparation for our discussion was the key to a clearer interpretation. For Dickens does capture well the Revolution's envy, the blood lust and the hatred for Christianity. An example? Of La Guillotine Dickens writes, "It was the sign of the regeneration of the human race. It superseded the Cross. Models of it were worn on breasts from which the Cross was discarded, and it was bowed down to and believed in where the Cross was denied."

Secondly, I also misinterpreted the Sydney Carton climax because I had put too much emphasis on him as the novel's protagonist. He isn't. Yes, he's important -- but only as one of several plot lines underscoring Dicken's theme, "Recalled to Life." It is the hope and power of resurrection that drives A Tale of Two Cities: resurrection from a false and cruel imprisonment (Doctor Manette and Charles Darnay); resurrection from a dissipated, worthless life (Sydney Carton); and resurrection from physical death as Carton finally understands and embraces the message preached at his father's funeral, "I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth on me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die."

No, if there is a protagonist in A Tale of Two Cities, it is Jarvis Lorry who along with Doctor Manette, Lucie, and even Miss Pross join the rank of heroic characters along with Carton. But if there is a focus of the novel, it is not the characters of Lorry, Carton or any of the others. It is the Resurrection with its triumphant power over injustice, terror and evil itself.

Okay, now that I've cleared the books with my corrected opinion of A Tale of Two Cities, it's time to close this post with the titles of those books which made the Notting Hill Napoleon cut for 2009. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we tried an experiment this past weekend which proved very successful. In fact, we managed to decide on our 12 books for the coming year with no lobbying, no squabbles, no reasons to cry foul -- and in about a third of the time it normally takes. Nice.

So here, in the finished form for the 2009 calendar, is the Notting Hill Napoleons' Reading List for 2009:

* January -- The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott
* February -- Out of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

* March -- The Virginian by Owen Wister

* April -- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

* May -- Landfall by Nevil Shute

* June -- The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara

* July -- Bardelys, the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini

* August -- Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo

* September -- Random Harvest by James Hilton

* October -- The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins

* November -- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

* December -- O Little Town by Don Reid

The top vote-getters in this election (not counting the requisite Dickens novel -- we're repeating the exact course of Dickens' novels that we read the first 13 times around!) were Scott, the new Don Reid Christmas novel (we were looking for a Christmas read and this easily beat out the other two contenders), Collins, Austen, Sabatini and Hilton.

Now to understand how these fit in with choices made earlier in our history, the full rota from 1992 through 2007 is listed in this post whereas the 2008 list is in this one.

And then, for further reference and to help you select titles for your own reading or for the book-lovers on your Christmas list, you might give a look to Denny's and Claire's newest version of Notting Hill Napoleon Reading Recommendations. You'll find that list in the post just below this one or, to put it another way, right here.