Brideshead Revisited

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Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.  It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited has everything that fascinates me in a story.  It takes place in post-World War I England (one of my favorite time periods in history and literature) and tells the story of Charles Ryder’s spiritual journey as he encounters the wealthy Flyte family.  Waugh’s writing, which is both beautiful and hilarious, makes this one of the more memorable novels I’ve read.

At Oxford, Charles becomes infatuated with Sebastian Flyte, the eccentric and quirky black sheep son of the Lord and Lady of Marchmain.  When Charles visits Sebastian’s family at their mansion, Brideshead, he begins relationships that will continue to affect and change him for decades to come.  Lady Marchmain is devoutly Catholic and struggles to instill her faith in her four children.  Of the four, Sebastian and Julia prove to be the less compliant to their mother’s hopes but have the biggest impact on Charles’ agnosticism.

The specifics of Charles’ and Sebastian’s relationship seem to be left purposefully vague and while it serves as the catalyst for Charles’ journey, it’s only one aspect of the story.  As a result of his own journey, Sebastian slowly and eventually fades into the background of the novel.  Charles’ point of conversion also has very little detail and occurs mysteriously at the end of the novel; however, it is completely realistic and gives me the impression that Charles’ journey (as opposed to his conversion) is what Waugh found most intriguing and most important and what he really wanted to write about.

I can now include Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen as novels that effectively weave faith into stories that remain profoundly human.  I don’t consider any of these novels to be “religious” novels in the sense that their purpose is not to promote a specific religious belief or to provide entertainment only to those within that belief set.  Instead, they happen to beautifully and realistically illustrate the human condition with characters that happen to have varying degrees of faith.

While this may seem like a very serious novel, Waugh’s wit shines through to make this story just about perfect for me.  I found one scene, in which a very long debate occurs as to whether to give last rites to a lapsed Catholic, both incredibly serious and irreverently funny. Julia’s politician suitor gives her a birthday present in the form of a live tortoise with diamonds etched into it’s shell.  Waugh’s description of the gift and the family’s reaction is priceless.  And finally, I found it hysterical when Charles attempts to assign a degree of excitement to an aristocratic get-together by counting the number of water droplets falling off the beak of the ice sculptured swan.

This novel became a groundbreaking PBS mini-series in the early 1980’s starring Jeremy Irons.  It was also made into a film a few years ago with Emma Thompson.  I haven’t seen either of them, but it would just be my hunch that the mini-series would be the better option.

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The Tree of Here by Chaim Potok

I read The Tree of Here, the second children’s book written by Chaim Potok.  I read The Sky of Now earlier this year.  Since both of these books are out of print, I appreciate The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County for hanging on to these.  He’s been one of my favorite authors for most of my adult life, and while his novels have had more of an impact on me, I have always been curious about these two kids’ books.

The Tree of Here

The Tree of Here is the story of Jason who finds out he is moving from his current home (which isn’t exactly specified) to Boston.  He goes through typical emotions of a young boy having to leave his house and friends behind.  He talks to the dogwood tree in his front yard.  And since it’s a kids’ book, it’s no problem for the dogwood tree to talk back.  Jason takes a small dogwood sapling to his new home (it also talks to him on the ride to Boston).

Both of Potok’s kids’ books are subtle and sweet.  I’m glad I read them.  He has two non-fiction books that could be interesting (they may be out of print also):  The Gates of November and Wanderings: A History of the Jews.  

Potok is mostly known for his novels.  I’m curious if anybody out there has read his non-fiction?

 

Chaim Potok and The Sky of Now

I’ve mentioned briefly in other posts that Chaim Potok is one of my favorite authors.  As I’ve read most of his work prior to blogging, I haven’t mentioned him as much as I’d like.  From somewhere in the deep dark basement of the Cincinnati Public Library, I managed to get one of his two books for younger children, The Sky of Now.

Cover art for THE SKY OF NOW

It’s been a while since I’ve read this type of childrens book as my kids have moved on to books for older kids and even at times adult books; however, that didn’t stop me from reading The Sky of Now and enjoying it – both the story and the pictures (by illustrator Tony Auth).

Brian lives in New York City (not uncommom for Potok characters) and is preparing for his tenth birthday.  His parents take him to the top of the Statue of Liberty.  When he looks down, he realizes that being up high is frightening. 

(Author Chaim Potok)

At home he has two clay models of a clown and a pilot whom he talks to – and they talk back.  This part of the book was great as no explanation needed to be given that these were imaginary friends – they just started talking.  When Brian explains his fear, the clown manages to come up with the profound notion:  “You’re only nine – you’ll grow out of it”.

For his birthday, Brian’s Uncle Conor, a pilot, gives him a wonderful birthday present that helps him overcome his fear.

This may not be the type of book many adults would enjoy but it only took me ten minutes to read it and I found it to be well worth the time.  To complete Potok’s work, I need to read his other childrens book and his two non-fiction books -something to add to my reading goals for the future.  Rereading some of his adult novels might not be a bad idea either.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Make Me Think

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books that make me think.  In some cases, it’s easier to come up with an author that makes me think as opposed to one book, but here goes in no particular order other than when they popped into my head:

1.  The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

2.  Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

3.  Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

4.  The Stranger by Albert Camus

5.  Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

6.  Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

7.  The Chosen by Chaim Potok

8.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

9.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

10.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

Library Memories: The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

In 2006, I moved to Northern Kentucky of the Greater Cincinnati Area.  For a couple of years, I made the trek across the river via the Brent Spence bridge to work in downtown Cincinnati.  One of my first tasks outside of work was to find the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.  A couple of blocks away, I was pleased to find it to be a large building that spanned two blocks with the magazine area crossing over 9th Street.  It reminded me of the Atrium at Circle Center Mall in Indianapolis.  While most libraries have a drive-up drop-off to return books, CPL also has a drive-up to pick up books.

A sculpture of giant books with a waterfall graces the entrance on Vine St.  Inside, the building has three floors.  Taking stairs or elevators to the second floor, crossing through the magazine area, then taking a spiral staircase back to the first floor brings you to the children’s section.  The second floor has a huge computer lab that is continuously utilized by thousands of patrons.

I discovered an interesting aspect of CPL when I was looking for a copy of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons for my book club (which was still in Indianapolis).  The on-line catalogue stated that CPL had the book and that it was in.  It also had a message that said to see the Information Desk.  This was the first of many times in which I requested an either out-of-print or obscure book from the Information Desk and they brought it up from what I imagined to be a dark and dusty basement.  I’m glad they were able to keep these books as opposed to throwing them away.  My imagination would sometimes get the better of me in wondering what kind of secret place these books were kept.

For a brief time, I worked in Blue Ash (north side of Cincy) and became a regular visitor of it’s branch.  While I was working here, a colleague of mine was listening to a group called The Little Willies.  After listening for a while, we figured out many of the lead vocals were by Norah Jones.  Not thinking I would be able to find this music on CD at the library, I looked it up any way.  Sure enough, there it was at the Blue Ash branch.  I picked it up at lunch and enjoyed listening to it for several weeks.

My favorite part of the downtown branch of CPL was the reading garden.  Set up with garden tables and chairs, trees and fountains, while the weather was warm (and sometimes when it wasn’t), I would spend several lunch hours a week there, getting away from the hectic grind.  What I liked best about the garden was the tall vine covered brick wall that surrounded it, keeping out the busyness of downtown.

I stopped working in downtown Cincy in 2009.  Since then, I haven’t been as frequent of visitor to CPL.  There are still a few out-of-print books that they have that I want to get.  Two of them are childrens books written by Chaim Potok:  The Tree of Here and The Sky of Now.  I’ve looked for these books for years and could never find them, then one day I looked on-line at CPL and there they were with the message “See Information Desk”.

Here’s one last picture:  Baseball and books – what could be better?

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters That Remind Me of Myself

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, sponsored by The Broke and The Bookish, are characters that remind me of myself.  The top ten lists I’ve put together recently have been fun, but I especially appreciated this one.  It made me go back over the years and relive some of my favorite reading experiences.

The first book I read in which I recognized a character that reminded me of myself was Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  No, I didn’t see myself in the title character, but in the narrator, Nick Carraway.  In fact, many of the characters in which I’ve seen myself have been “side-kicks”.  I would like to think that I’m the extremely loyal friend like Samwise Gamgee in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but I admit that I have a jealous streak like Ron Weasley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Several characters in Chaim Potok’s novels, Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders in The Chosen and Asher Lev in My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev, reminded me that I can question my faith (or worldview or life philosophy) without abandoning it.

Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road would be me (for the most part) if I ever went “on the road” with a group of friends like he did with Dean Moriarty.  The closest I ever came was Myrtle Beach during spring break in college – not exactly the same.

I’m probably too old to say that I see myself in J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, not to mention it’s a little cliche, but when I was sixteen and reading the book?  Absolutely!

Somewhere in E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View, Cecil Vyse says that some people in the world are only good for books – he rather pompously includes himself in this category.  As much as I love books and while some of my friends might put me in Cecil’s category, I can’t say I see myself in him.  At the same time, I’m not the free spirit that George Emerson appears to be, either.  I saw myself more in the vicar, Mr. Beebe, with an ability to somehow combine the enjoyment of real life and books.

I don’t believe I’m as old as Santiago in Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea and I’m not much of a fisherman, but the older I get, it becomes easier to relate to this guy.

What characters remind you of you?