All, Bookworm, Faith

Book Recommendation: “Dear Mr. Knightley”

Gifts come in diverse places and forms. They can be large or small. They can have life-altering consequences or maybe provide a temporary lightness of heart.

An unassuming, easily overlooked gift arrived in my life a couple weeks ago. I was at the library hurriedly searching for a new story, scanning some of the authors a good friend of mine had suggested but nothing was piquing my interest. I said a quick prayer– yes, I prayed for Jesus to help me find a good book. He cares about all our concerns even those as seemingly insignificant as checking out a book at the library. Finally, I decided to look for another of my friend’s suggestions: Dear Mr. Knightley.

I went over to one of the search computers, typed in the title and, lo and behold, Dear Mr. Knightley was available at that library branch, no request necessary. Thank You, Jesus!

Oh my gosh! I devoured that book. It felt like finding a new friend. And I am now currently re-reading it. 🤓

Though a bit of my initial enthusiasm has waned on a second reading, it’s a book I will likely re-read again in the future.

Dear Mr. Knightley is a well-written, engaging Christian romance/fiction. The characters have some depth and dimension to them and have believable development and growth. Moreover, if the title didn’t give you a clue, this novel is brimming with references to classic English literature (Mr. Knightley is the hero in Jane Austen’s Emma).

Don’t be wary of its Christian classification. It does not brow beat you or preach at you. Rather, it’s through the faith, goodness, and love of some of the characters that the heroine begins to believe in God’s love for her.

Written by Katherine Reay, it is a re-telling of the 1912 story, Daddy-Long-legs by Jean Webster (which is now on my to-read list, haha.)

Samantha Moore, the main character, has had a difficult childhood – abusive parents, in and out of foster homes. She’s now in her early twenties and endeavoring to find her place in the world and to take ownership of her life.

She loves reading and writing (to borrow a phrase from Anne of Green Gables: I think she’s a kindred spirit!) and is attending graduate school for journalism through the financial support of her anonymous benefactor, the mysterious Mr. Knightley. The only condition for the arrangement is that she must write him letters describing her life and her progress in school. Hence, the book’s narrative takes the form of letters penned by Samantha to the mysterious Mr. Knightley.

Reay writes in the afterword that this is a story about forgiveness. Which is true. Samantha states decidedly at the beginning of the story that she does not forgive. However, by the conclusion, she is faced with a life-altering opportunity to forgive, and the painful growth she has undergone may enable her to assent to doing so.

Another motif of the novel is “unwarranted and undeserved” grace, as Samantha’s mentor Father John describes, and the choices we make to accept or reject that grace.

Samantha must accept and acknowledge the wrongs committed against her as well as her own sins and shortcomings and consciously strive to do better. She must give and receive second chances.

Then, of course, there is Samantha’s love life. This brings me to another element of the story: the various types of love.

True, constant love of any variety is something basically foreign to Samantha. She always has used her affinity for literature and its characters as a means to hide and to hold people at arm’s length, actually quoting stories to evade revealing her own thoughts and feelings.

Now, as she begins to blaze a path forward, she must learn to offer and accept love in a healthy way and in a variety of scenarios: to parent/mentor figures, to friends, and to potential romantic love interests.

One of my favorite relationships in the book is between Samantha and Kyle, a teenage foster kid for whom Samantha plays the role of mentor. Yet this mentorship blossoms into a true friendship, and Kyle is the catalyst for an event that brings major healing both to him and to Samantha.

The primary love story, which I won’t spoil, involves a handsome young novelist and is refreshingly clean in this “too-much-information” culture in which we dwell. It has its fairy tale elements, but it also has a lot of reality as two struggling, striving people find friendship and eventually love.

Samantha is relatable to me in many ways. From her physical description (tall brunette), to her proclivity for reading and writing, to her feeling of disorientation and being behind the curve in some areas of life. Our childhoods were not remotely similar, but there is much in Samantha that I think many twenty-somethings can find appealing.

Another perk to this book is the rich reference made to classic literature. It has re-awakened my interest in reading some stories which I haven’t picked up in a long time and in delving into some new ones as well (like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South).

Of course, after reading Dear Mr. Knightley, I wanted to read more of Reay’s work. Accordingly, I checked out The Bronte Plot, also filled with literary references, coming of age, and finding forgiveness. I definitely plan to read more.

As I said at the opening, gifts come in surprising packages sometimes. And though I am always truly grateful for books and stories, finding this new golden nugget felt like a God-wink, a little gift that popped up just when I needed it.

If you’re looking for a breezy summer read that also has heart, I hope you pick it up and enjoy!

Happy Reading!📖☺️

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All, Bookworm

“So Big”: It’s a Big Deal

Edna_Ferber
Edna Ferber

When I initially started writing this post back in the fall, I had recently re-read Edna Ferber’s 1924 novel So Big, which I first encountered in high school. This book is not only enjoyable, but it also arguably offers many profound lessons. Should one pursue worldly wealth or should one sacrifice and work for what is truly fulfilling and for which one has passion and talent? What is beauty and where do we find it? What is a true education? What is the value of living on and working the land versus living in a city? And what are the consequences of the choices we make about our life directions?

So Big is an important, multi-layered book, insightful in its look at cultural history and its philosophical questions about life. On top of all that, it is an engaging story with vivid, believable characters. Ferber doesn’t give the reader a tidy, “happily ever after” conclusion but rather a realistic one with one of the characters facing a moment of crisis and decision about what he will do in his life.

Set in rural Illinois and in Chicago from the late 1800’s to post-World War I, the reader witnesses the deracination of the culture with the Industrial Age and the accompanying generational shifts in people’s priorities and values as well as some of the disillusionment among the wealthy, “gilded youth” after the war.

The book takes its colloquial title from the game parents often play with their toddlers: “how big is baby? Soooo big.”  SoBig becomes the childhood nickname of the main character’s son and by the end of the book, the reader is left to wonder about the cost of being “sooo big” in the eyes of the world.

The story centers around Selina Peake Dejong, who is only nineteen when the action of the plot gets going.  Her father is loving and good-natured but he is a gambler by trade and tragically becomes the accidental victim of a fatal shooting.

He had instilled in Selina an appreciation for and love of beauty, and he had imparted this seminal piece of wisdom: “The more kinds of people you see and the more things you do and the more things that happen to you, the richer you are. Even if they’re not pleasant things. That’s living.” He told her that life is a grand adventure.

In order to support herself, Selina takes the position of school teacher in the bucolic, Dutch area of Illinois known as High Prairie. She is something of a fish out of water in the decidedly pragmatic and phlegmatic but welcoming community.  Yet, she accepts the challenges of her job and her new farm life as an adventure.

With her characteristic eye for beauty, she exclaims upon first sight that the cabbages grown by the Pooles (the family with whom she stays) are beautiful. Her reaction raises the mirth of all her new companions except for the Pooles’ twelve-year-old son, Roelf whose sensitive, artistic disposition contrasts with his family but finds a kindred spirit in Selina. Selina encourages Roelf’s artistic tendencies and loans him some of her classic literature to read.

Selina marries and settles on a High Prairie farm into a life she has never imagined for herself.

She has her fair share of hardships, including being widowed and having to raise her young son by herself, but she faces her trials squarely with poise, courage, intelligence, and creativity as she herself matures and grows as a person. She never loses her ideal of beauty but integrates it into all aspects of her life from how she runs her farm, to how she raises her son, to how she treats and views other people.

Even years after first moving to High Prairie, she still finds the cabbages beautiful. Ferber writes, “Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”

Selina has a child-like curiosity and simple kindness about her that attracts other people to her and gives a luminosity to her eyes. Ferber makes a point of contrasting Selina’s eyes to those of Julie Arnold, Selina’s girlhood friend, who attains wealth and societal prestige and can afford all the latest cosmetics. Yet Julie’s eyes do not shine like Selina’s but remain dull despite make-up, perhaps illustrating that old adage that the “eyes are the window to the soul.” Julie does not carry the same inner beauty that Selina possesses.

Selina is steady and steadfast, the “rock” of the story.

Her son Dirk is a different tale. Selina wants Dirk to have more opportunity than a farm life can proffer. She sends him to college where he decides to study architecture. This elates the beauty-loving Selina. However, away from his mother’s grounding influence, Dirk begins to stray from some of the values she held dear, even in how he treats those considered unpopular by the in-crowd.

When the Great War breaks out, Dirk gives up architecture for the more swiftly lucrative career of selling war bonds. He then transitions to banking when the war ends.

He falls into the restless, pleasure-seeking set of wealthy, gilded youth and their insipid, homogenous lifestyle, particularly that of his friend, the conniving and unhappily married Paula.

However, Dirk is ill-at-ease and Paula grates his nerves.

Selina, naturally, is concerned about her son and warns him not to betray beauty, saying that beauty may no longer be there when he decides he wants her. Basically, she is reminding him to take stock of his priorities and what he truly values personally and professionally.

Despite himself, Dirk finds that he is falling for a woman named Dallas, an unassuming, bohemian artist whose views on life are very similar to those of his mother Selina.

Dallas sizes up Dirk and decidedly gives him her opinion, and Dirk is left to accept the consequences of his life pursuits and choose in which direction he will turn.

I really cannot recommend this book enough. I don’t think it is as well-known nowadays as it should be. Its questions and conflicts are as relevant and timely today, if not more so, as they were one hundred years ago.

If you are looking for both a thought-provoking as well as engrossing read, check out So Big. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

All, Bookworm

On Books

There’s nothing like walking into a bookstore and having the scent of books hit my olefactory sense. Whether it is the pungent mustiness of used tomes or that “new book smell,” shelves lined with books ignite curiosity and bring comfort.

For me, reading simultaneously feels like coming home and setting off for uncharted adventures. Reading a new book and making the acquaintance of the characters dwelling in its pages is like making a new friend. And like human friendships, there is always room for more.

“Books are the most wonderful friends in the world. When you meet them and pick them up, they are always ready to give you a few ideas. When you put them down, they never get mad; when you take them up again, they seem to enrich you all the more.”

– Venerable Fulton Sheen

All sorts of genres: fiction, history, biography, religion, poetry, philosophy, fantasy– they all have a different “personality” through their various styles and myriad characters. They all teach you, comfort you, entertain you, challenge you, in diverse and wonderful ways.

Even now as a young adult, I relish going back and reading children’s literature. Classic kids’ books from the Chronicles of Narnia to the Berenstain Bears series to Charlotte’s Web to the Tales of Beatrix Potter, these enduring stories and others in the canon of time-honored children’s literature impart important lessons that are valuable to young, old, and in-between.

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

-C. S. Lewis

During my senior year of college, one of my echoing refrains was that I couldn’t wait to be able to read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted again.  Sure enough in the year-plus since graduation, one of my most pleasurable, restoring, and peaceful past times has been reading. Lying in a hammock in the warm sunshine of a drowsy afternoon or the cool evening breeze with a book or two–that is my happy place.

I have always been a voracious reader, a bookworm, a bibliophile.  As nerdy as it may sound, I am truly grateful for the gift of stories, literature, books, and for the authors who pen these friends in leaf-and-binding form.

Before I was homeschooled, one of the best parts of “regular” school was when I’d walk into the classroom in the morning and find a Scholastic book order on my desk. I would eagerly open it up and begin circling the books I hoped my parents would purchase for me.  Oh the joys of childhood!

I can definitely relate to that song from “Arthur,” one my favorite book series and TV shows from childhood. “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”

I know you children of the nineties are singing along. 😉

Speaking of nineties TV shows, who remembers “Wishbone”? Another of my favorites. A cute, spunky Jack Russell terrier imagining himself as the hero of classic literature like Tom Sawyer and Romeo and Juliet, all the while going on relatable adventures with his owner Joe and Joe’s friends, Sam (Samantha) and David. Talk about truly educational children’s television! (For those of you who want a trip down memory lane, most of the old Wishbone shows can be found on YouTube.)

I don’t really know the point of this rambling and perhaps maudlin post except maybe just take it as a PSA in favor of reading! Haha. Reading really can improve your life, expand your vocabulary, help you to think critically and creatively, and introduce you to new places and people.

To all my fellow bookworms, keep on reading! Even if you’re not much of a book person, maybe listen to a book on CD or online.

I hope it’ll bring you much happiness!

PC: https://www.facebook.com/I-Love-Dogs-And-Books-185755638206971/
All, Bookworm, Faith

Musings on Narnia

NOTE: I wrote these reflections a few summers ago after I had re-read “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” I thought that they would possibly make a decent blog post, so now that I actually have a blog I decided that I would share with y’all.  Edits and additions have been made.  Hope you enjoy these ramblings/informal book report from a bookworm! 😉

I feel like the older I become the better I can appreciate C.S. Lewis’ genius, his societal commentary, and the very spiritual Christian insights he incorporated into his writings.  He is, undoubtedly, one of my favorite authors.  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (the third book published in the Chronicles of Narnia series but the fourth in Narnia chronology), like all of the Narnia books, is simple, beautiful, profound, and enjoyable for both children and adults.

During the first chapter, it struck me how much pointed humor his series contains.  When I was younger, I could not appreciate it as much, but now some comments stand out to me that were previously less conspicuous.  An example is Lewis’ description of Eustace’s family: “They were very modern and up-to-date people.  They were vegetarians, non-smokers, and tee-totalers.”  This is not intended as a compliment.  Eustace is obnoxious, bratty, and arrogant.  He has no imagination, believing solely in science and rational facts.  He and his family have abandoned the timeless truths and principles of wonder, respect, and belief in a Higher Power.  They are politically correct, but they are insufferable.  It’s not that being a vegetarian, a non-smoker, or a tee-totaler was necessarily wrong.  The problem is more that they have no permanent foundation of beliefs for their lives.  Instead, they go along with the latest trends, whatever is in vogue at the moment.eustace

Eustace ridicules Lucy and Edmund for their belief in Narnia.  Even when Eustace experiences the wonder of Narnia firsthand, having entered this other world through an enchanted picture frame, he seemingly cannot give his assent to the substantiality and rationality of this fantastic realm.

Eustace continually tries to hold Narnia to the limited standards of his legitimate but incomplete world of science-only.  A world of chivalry and monarchy where a girl is given deference over men when it comes to living quarters is unfathomable to him. (Lucy was given the use  of King Caspian’s room while Caspian, Edmund, and Eustace bunked below the Dawn Treader’s deck.)  Eustace tries to tell King Caspian that this is demeans girls, not seeing how this simple distinction does not diminish femininity but actually shows respect for Lucy.

How often do we behave in a way similar to Eustace?  We measure God by our own limited, finite vision, experience and life.  Often we are blind to His work in our lives even when it is right in front of our eyes, like Eustace when he first enters Narnia.

We must strive to adopt the attitude of Edmund and Lucy Pevensie, who not only continually pondered and spoke of Narnia, but also always hoped and expected to experience it once more. Their faith was rewarded, and, thankfully, Eustace was pulled along with them for the adventure of a lifetime.

The crucial moment that begins Eustace’s journey of conversion is when he is transformed into a dragon.  Having wandered away from his traveling companions during a respite on an island, Eustace stumbles onto a dragon’s lair and falls asleep upon a mound of enchanted treasure.  During his sleep, he undergoes a metamorphosis into a dragon: “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.”  His outside now reflected his interior disposition.

However, Eustace’s time as a dragon is a bit of an epiphany for him.  He recognizes how beastly he has been behaving and for the first time experiences true loneliness and a longing for companionship. Once he is able to communicate who he is to the others, he becomes most helpful, bringing them food and a massive tree from which to fashion a new mast for the Dawn Treader.  He also offers his services (the fire in his belly) as a source of warmth on cold nights.

Eventually, Eustace is transformed back into a boy, and the process by which this is wrought is filled with Christian symbolism.  Aslan, the mighty lion and Christ figure,  appears to Eustace and tells him to “Follow me.”  Aslan leads him to a well that is filled with water and directs him to bathe in it after undressing first, meaning after removing his dragon skin.  Eustace tries three times to scratch away his skin on his own, only to find that there is more underneath.  At last, Aslan says that Eustace must be undressed by him.  When recounting the encounter to Edmund, Eustace explained that this process hurt, but it was a good pain: “And when he [Aslan] began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.  The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”  Aslan then tossed him into the well water, which also smarted and hurt at first but then became “delicious.”

One can easily compare this scene to repentance and Baptism. We must first shed the “dragon-ish” parts of ourselves, namely,  our sins and shortcomings through repentance.  However,  we cannot remove them ourselves.  If we try, we are only frustrated by our failure.  We must let Jesus and His grace work the transformation in us, a process that can be painful sometimes but that ultimately brings joy and peace.  We are ready to accept God’s forgiveness and be made clean in the waters of Baptism, which we will ultimately find “delicious.”

Eustace is frequently described by Lewis as a “beginner.” Baptism is meant for Christians at the beginning of their faith journeys, either as infants or as adult converts.  In fact, it is one of the Sacraments of Initiation.  Lewis says that Eustace was mostly a completely changed person after his encounter with Aslan, but he still had slip-ups and it would be more accurate to say that he was becoming a better person.  When we first make a commitment to Christ and to the faith, we often do have setbacks and slip-ups but we are now striving and improving and have hope rather than remaining in our mess.  Indeed throughout our whole lives and faith journeys, we must continuously strive for conversion and re-commit ourselves to Christ through prayer, the sacraments, and acts of charity.

Lastly, Eustace’s conversion was prompted first by being immersed in a world of believers, by being immersed in the world of Narnia.  Lewis mentions that the good effects of Narnia began to work on Eustace without him even realizing it; case in point, when he is struggling to climb a mountain, he perseveres to the end instead of giving up like he would have been wont to do before experiencing Narnia.  This small event exemplifies both the importance of evangelization as well as the reality that both our chosen companions and environment have an affect on our attitude and ways of thinking.  Secondly, his conversion was motivated mainly by an experience of hardship, that is, becoming a dragon.  Eustace’s suffering impelled him to make an examination of conscience, so to speak. He realized his nastiness and wanted to be reconciled and be friends with his companions once more.  So often in the real world, it is suffering and trials that drive people to conversion or to a re-awakening of faith.  We take a hard long look at ourselves and our lives and realize where we have fouled up and who we have wronged, and we desire to make amends.

These musings only cover a small portion of the insights contained in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as well as the whole Narnia series.  If you have never read these books or if it’s been a while since you’ve read them, pick them up again and discover the beauty that C.S. Lewis has to offer!

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Images taken from the Chronicles of Narnia page on Facebook.