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Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...

 

Fiction Favorites, Part Deux

A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton PorterThis lovely book is the second novel my mom read aloud to me. Just the two of us cuddled on the couch of an afternoon in a tiny green house in Tennessee, reading all about the lovely Elnora. Set in the haunting "Limberlost" woods and swamp, this is the story of a girl gifted with a love of nature and her father's love for music. Her mother blames her for the death of her father, so Elnora must, in large part, fend for herself as she grows older, scavenging the Limberlost for the exotic moths coveted by collectors. This book is singularly responsible for the butterfly mania I developed as a child and hold to this day. It is also an old-fashioned romantic read, full of nature and friendship and an old timey love of innocent beauty. Freckles, it's loose prequel (as in not directly written to precede Girl of the Limberlost, but set in the same place and with a recurring character) is also one of my favorite summertimeish reads.

Emily of New Moon Series by Lucy Maud Montgomery Since everyone knows about the Anne of Green Gables series by this author, I'm going to list a series she wrote that most people don't know about. I can't decide which series I like better, but since the Emily one is about a girl whose whole soul reaches to write, I might go with this one. Emily is a quiet, black-haired little girl grieving her father when she comes to live with her two maiden aunts on a rural farm in PEI. She loves the beauty of the world, is a fast friend, and a surreptitous writer as she scribbles away in the "jimmybooks" her Uncle Jimmy smuggles her despite her aunt's disapproval. The series follows Emily as she enters high school, decides which writing path she will take, and discovers what old Scottish highlanders called "the Second Sight." There is a quote I'll be posting later this week from the Emily books that always comes back to me when I think of the writer's life. Like all Montgomery novels, these are brimful with a love of nature and friendship, and a celebration of beauty.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society I read this just last weekend. The ever-lovely Annie sent it to me for my birthday. I had a restless Saturday hour and was in dire need of a soulful, but light book. I wanted color, romance, English villages, WWII, that sort of thing, and oh but I got it in this gem of a book. One of the few modern novels I've read of late and loved, it is told entirely through letters to and from a writer named Juliet Ashton. Having gained a bit of popularity with a war-time column, Juliet embarks on a harrowing tour of England. In the midst of it, she receives an unexpected letter from a man who lives in the channel islands and has just discovered a book of hers. Thus begins a correspondence that results in her discovery of a literary society formed on the isle of Guernsey during the Nazi occupation of the channel islands. This book is a celebration of friendship and the power of story to hold the heart strong even in grievous times. This is an easy find - I saw it last week at Barnes and Noble.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee Okay, back to a few of the heavier books. Though not a light read, this is a simple one because it is told (quite brilliantly) through the eyes of a young girl. Set in the deep south during the depression, it deals with racial prejudice and the blind hatred of which the human heart is possible. Yet it is a book of warmth and tenderness because of little Scout's relationship with her brave father Atticus who is defending a falsely accused man. An American classic, with deep insight into what is fallen, and yet what grace is possible in the human heart, this is remarkable for being the only novel Harper Lee ever wrote. A book that leaves you in a circle of quiet at its end.

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The Chosen, by Chaim Potok This book took me unawares. I can't even remember why I picked it up, but as soon as I did, I was so immersed in the life of its characters, a neighborhood of orthodox Jews in New York city around WWII, I felt as if I'd lived a week of my life in that rich, ancient culture. The story still haunts me, it is the sort you mull off and on for years - it comes back and you question it more. It opens with an unexpected friendship that grows between Reuven, the brilliant teenage son of a Hasidic (one of the strictest forms of orthodox Judaism) rabbi, and Danny, the son of a gentle Jewish scholar. Expected to fill his father's shoes as future rabbi, Reuven is torn between love of his aloof father and his own draw toward secular study. An aching tale this, a story of fathers and sons, and the tension between what is precious and ancient, and the new world in which the sacred is constantly questioned. I admit, this is probably not going to be to everyone's taste - the writing tone is quite modern and you will find yourself questioning character's decisions. But the truth about family, tradition, and loss that you know in the deep part of your heart at the end is the reason I treasure this novel.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkein Everyone should read this book. Just, everyone should. Period. I have to start this review by saying that I know everyone has seen the movies now, and many have told me they have a hard time getting past the first part of the book anyway, so why bother? Because this is one of the great modern myths of our time. It embodies eternal, ancient truths for us moderns - it is adventure and courage, friendship and beauty of the transcendent sort. This book saved my faith. It's an epic from start to finish - the tale of the little hobbit Frodo who is entrusted with the mission to destroy an evil ring. If he fails, the whole world and all that is good will be covered in darkness. Aided by friends who swear their lives to his help, protected by the wisdom and long-built beauty of the mysterious Elves, and guided by the gruff but sage Gandalf the Grey, Frodo does what all good people must - he endures, and suffers, and holds to hope in the face of evil. This is one of those stories that really is the story of the world, that is our own story writ large. I love it because it helps me to glimpse the epic nature of real life. And oh, the beauty and complexity of this imagined world. Please. I am ranting. Just read it.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle Madeleine L'Engle was one of those luminous souls whose words (and sheer presence on the earth) make you believe in God's reality. When she died recently, my dream of driving to NY City and showing up on her doorstep died too. Now, I'm planning on heaven. I first came to L'Engle through her essays, and have to credit them along with Lewis for helping me to believe in a God who truly was love, real Beauty incarnate, at a time when all I could see was his anger. This most famous of her novels (actually a children's book) is the story of the Murray family, especially the myopic Meg, her strange and gifted little brother Charles, and their search for their missing scientist father. Whirled through space by the fantastic trio of guardians and guides who parade as old ladies named Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which, the Murray children and their friend Calvin (accidentally swept along) must rescue their father from a distant planet where he is held captive by a strange being called It. The theme of this book is the power of love, the truth that is in affection and beauty, and its strength in the face of a faithless world.

My Antonia, by Willa Cather This book is a poem as much as a story to me. Cather's voice as a writer is sparse, wide, yet rich, just like the plains and pioneer people whose story she tells. Antonia is the eldest daughter of an immigrant family scratching out a living in pioneer Nebraska. Her life is told through the eyes of her neighbor, a young boy living with his grandparents. The calm, careful writing, the quiet observations of simple, earthy life, the wistfulness of the tale make this book and Cather in general beloved. Also by Cather: Death Comes for the Archbishop.