Kilmeny of the Orchard

What a delight it was to me to realise that when you move to an author’s home country, you can find more of their books — and so here begins a mini-resumption of my Lucy Maud Montgomery reading project (the first six posts of which are linked here). Over the summer of 2017 I read as many of Montgomery’s books as I could easily get my hands on — which ended up being nineteen of them — as well as a biography. Now I have just finished LMM number twenty, Kilmeny of the Orchard.

It is a sweet love story, unusual in the Montgomery canon in that its protagonist is a man rather than a girl or a woman — actually, of the twenty, it is the only one set up this way (although I believe a few of her short stories take a male point of view). Eric Gordon is a fresh university graduate intent on joining his father in the family business — but not before he spends a few weeks on Prince Edward Island, substitute teaching in place of a friend who is taken ill. Wandering down through an abandoned orchard one night, he is suddenly arrested by the sound of beautiful music being played on the violin. The player is the beautiful Kilmeny Gordon — a young woman with a sad family history and a puzzling case of muteness.

Naturally Eric and Kilmeny’s love grows and triumphs in the end — it’s hardly giving anything away to say so! I will leave you to discover how on your own, if you are so inclined. The reader will want to pay attention to the theme of emotional pain and how it transforms one’s character and relationships, for better or for worse. I was particularly struck by this short passage near the end of the novel:

As he crossed the pasture field before the spruce wood he came upon Neil Gordon, building a longer fence. Neil did not look up as Eric passed, but sullenly went on driving poles. Before this Eric had pitied Neil; now he was conscious of feeling sympathy with him. Had Neil suffered as he was suffering? Eric had entered into a new fellowship whereof the passport was pain. (p. 235)

It seems to me that, fundamentally, we have two options when confronted with pain and sorrow: to turn inward upon ourselves in self-pity, as Neil does, or to allow it to turn us outward towards others in compassion, as Eric is here able to do. Kilmeny of the Orchard is, in part, concerned with the question of what we are to do with our pain — and how those choices affect those around us, innocent and guilty alike.

I also learned a little bit more about PEI history, because I had to look up a reference to the “harvest excursion train”. In the earlier half of the twentieth century, trains would take Maritimers west each year to work the grain harvests in the prairie provinces, as well as for other industries like logging and school-teaching. You can read more about the harvest excursion in this CBC piece.

Kilmeny of the Orchard was a lovely read, and quick — despite the high page count on the quotation above, there is not that much to it (my copy had largeish print and extraordinarily wide margins). It was a nice way to pick up my LMM project again. Twenty books down… five more to go!

Love, Julia

Recently I watched the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, which tells the parallel stories of Julia Child’s road to publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogger Julie Powell’s 2002 attempt to cook every recipe therein over the space of one calendar year. It was entertaining on the whole. I didn’t find the Powell storyline especially compelling (woman writes novelty blog, gets popular, imperils marriage, gets book deal; nothing we haven’t seen play out a million times in real life since the early aughts) but I really enjoyed the Julia Child segments. She was a fascinating woman — and I have to say that Meryl Streep nailed her voice — and so I grabbed myself a copy of As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, & the Making of a Masterpiece, selected and edited by Joan Reardon. Yes, this book has two subtitles. I know.

Anyway — As Always, Julia covers nine years of a friendship that started in an unusual way: Child wrote a fan letter to Bernard DeVoto, Avis’s husband, agreeing with his piece in Harper’s Magazine decrying stainless steel kitchen knives. Avis, acting as her husband’s secretary, wrote back; Julia Child wrote back to her, and a remarkable friendship and working partnership was born. Julia and Avis were frequent correspondents during the nine years it took to bring Mastering the Art of French Cooking to publication, as Julia followed her husband Paul’s career to France (Paris and then Marseilles), Germany, and Norway.

It was an engrossing read. Besides all of the incidental culinary details — I snapped a few pictures of a letter detailing how to properly pan-fry a fish without all the breading falling off — the letters provide a snapshot of American social and political life in the 1950s and early 60s from a perspective I haven’t frequently encountered before. The Childs and the DeVotos were all heavily interested in politics and involved in what you might call high-level American cultural life. Many of their letters detailed their hopes and aspirations for the 1952 and ’56 presidential elections (Stevenson vs. Ike), and their worries about Sen. McCarthy and the direction in which he seemed to be shaping the nation. (Paul Child was interrogated about “un-American activities” in 1955.) It was, however, a little disheartening to read correspondence that decried hyper-partisanship in one letter, yet referred to Republicans as “beasts” and used phrases like “I can hardly see them as human” in the next. Plus ça change…

Mastering the Art of French Cooking was such a success that it surprised me to see the travails that it took to get it published. As a cookbook, it was something entirely new: there had been French cookbooks published in the United States before, but none aimed at the ordinary cook (the servantless American housewife!) or at those who were starting from a position of little to no culinary training. Writing and testing and retesting all of the recipes took years, as did the fight to get it placed with a publisher. Houghton Mifflin had originally contracted for the book, but turned it down as it neared the final stages — but since it sold like hotcakes and has never been out of print I can only imagine that they have been kicking themselves ever since! In the end, Avis DeVoto was able to get the cookbook placed with Knopf, and her championing of the book was instrumental; it’s doubtful whether it would have been published at all without her partnership. (In retrospect, it is disappointing how much her role is minimized in Julie & Julia.)

After reading so much about the herculean work to write and publish Mastering, I got a copy out of the library to look through. I haven’t gone deep into it, but it’s very well laid out and has already significantly upped my cooked carrots game (unsurprisingly, the secret is butter). Julie & Julia wasn’t a great movie, but I’m glad that it put me onto these reading trails. So here’s to Julia Child — and more butter!

First read-alouds

We’ve recently hit a fun new family milestone: our oldest child is old enough (and has the attention span) to start doing some read-aloud chapter books.

Perpetua still takes a daily nap (long may it so be) and so most days, Anselm and I will take some of that time to snuggle up on the couch and do some reading together. We read a lot of picture books throughout the day, of course, but there’s something lovely about doing these long-form books. We do two chapters a day.

Our first was Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary, the story of Henry and his found dog, Ribsy. I didn’t remember this one very well — I was more into Cleary’s Ramona books when I was a girl — but it was an enjoyable read. Henry and Ribsy get into all sorts of scrapes, but manage to (mostly) get out of them with some creative problem solving. The most tension appears in the final chapter, when Ribsy’s former owner shows up to try and claim him; Anselm was made incredibly nervous by this and didn’t want to listen, which gave us a good chance to talk about how listening to stories even when we’re nervous can help us practice being courageous. He made it through… and so did Henry and Ribsy.

Since then we’ve been enjoying Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series. Siblings Jo, Bessie, and Fanny move from the town to the country and discover an enchanted wood at the centre of which grows a wonderful tree: so magic that it can grow all kinds of fruit at once, inhabited by all sorts of interesting characters, at stretching all the way up to a hole in the cloud, above which lies a magic land to visit, a different one every week! The children — along with their special friends Silky, Moonface, and the Saucepan Man — have all sorts of adventures, and get into some dreadful scrapes, in all sorts of magic lands. These books have had a wonderful sparking effect on Anselm’s imagination, and little Faraway Tree plot threads find their way into his pretend-play pretty regularly.

Note that these are older editions, published in the early 1990s. Recent editions have modernized and Americanized the books’ language (they are very, very British), including changing the children’s names (Jo -> Joe; Bessie -> Beth; Fanny -> Franny). I haven’t read the modern editions, but the changes are pretty well decried on Amazon and other review sites. I wanted to complete the trilogy, so when I bought The Enchanted Woods (the first book), I made sure to buy an older copy from a used book store instead. I’m looking forward to reading that one next, and then — we’ll see where we end up next!

Some ephemera

I’ve had several posts rattling around in my brain for a few weeks now — but I’ve hit a bit of a busy stretch, or at least a difficult-to-blog stretch, and I don’t think any of them will ever be realized at this point. So, in no particular order, here are some things I’ve been thinking about lately:

1. Recently I read Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination, by Vigen Guroian. His thesis is that the “classic stories” — fables, myths, and fairy tales in their un-bowdlerized, un-Disneyfied versions — are powerful tools for teaching and nurturing the virtues in our children (and ourselves). Each chapter examines a classic story or two, the virtue it imparts, and the means by which it does so. It’s compelling reading — and enough that I immediately checked out the original story of Pinocchio when I had finished (since I am only familiar with the Disney film version). I was especially struck by this passage quoting George MacDonald:

There are critics who say that George MacDonald wrote over the heads of children. MacDonald himself said that he wrote for “children” of all ages. He endeavored to appeal to the childlike in everyone — not the childish, but the childlike — and to feed the moral imagination. MacDonald dd not exaggerate the power of the imagination. Imagination is a power of discovery, not a power to create. The latter capacity he reserved to God alone. Nor did MacDonald equate imagination with mere fancy, what we used to call “vain imaginings.” Rather, for him, imagination is a power of perception, a light that illumines the mystery that is hidden beneath visible reality: it is a power to help “see” into the very nature of things. Reason alone, MacDonald argued, is not able to recognize mystery or grasp the moral quiddity of the world. As the sensible mind needs eyes to see, so reason needs the imagination in order to behold mystery and to perceive the true quality of things. Imagination takes reason to the threshold of mystery and moral truth and reveals them as such. Reason may then approve or submit. But it remains for the heart of courage with the will to believe and the vision of imagination to embrace the beauty of goodness and the strength of truth as the foundation of virtuous living. (141-2)

2. “Silent Night” — the Christmas carol, I mean — has always driven me a little nuts. It doesn’t scan properly. We expect melody and lyrics to work together in the service of meaning, but in this case, they’re constantly fighting each other. The third verse is slightly nonsensical. Son of God love’s pure light / radiant beams from thy holy face / with the dawn of redeeming grace — what does that mean? Is the Son of God “love’s pure light”? In which case, where is the verb that should go with the “radiant beams”? Or are we supposed to read it as “love’s pure light, radiant, beams from…” where “radiant” is modifying the light instead of describing the beams? I shouldn’t have to work this hard at a Christmas carol, for goodness’ sake.

However. I was leafing through one of my older hymnals and came across an alternate translation, by “Jane M. Campbell and others”:

Silent night! holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Yonder the Virgin-Mother and Child,
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night! holy night!
Only for shepherds’ sight
Came blest visions of angel throngs,
With their loud alleluia songs,
Saying, Christ is come,
Saying, Christ is come.

Silent night! holy night!
Child of heaven, O how bright
Thou didst smile on us when thou wast born,
Blest indeed was that happy morn,
Full of heavenly joy,
Full of heavenly joy.

I don’t have any German and so I can’t compare the fidelity of either translation to the original lyrics (except by running it through Google translate, which illustrates the continued necessity of human translators). But as English versions go, I think this is far superior to the more popular iteration. It’s grammatically sensible. It scans perfectly with the melody. I move that we all sing this version instead (start petitioning your choir directors now).

3. I ditched Facebook a good while ago now, but my husband still has an account, and occasionally I hop on his when I want to check something — usually a business or organization that only has a FB page instead of their own website, which is a really boneheaded choice for several reasons, which is a complete digression from the point that I’m actually trying to make. The other night I was scrolling through his feed and all I could think was I don’t miss this at all. Sometimes I regret giving up my account because it also meant giving up a certain ease of connecting with people — but when I remember everything else that came with that ease, I am again satisfied with my decision.

On a somewhat related note, the other night my husband was looking at Goodreads reviews for a book he just finished. (Why? I can only assume it’s because he likes to punish himself.) He found a long, one-star review by a contributor who admitted to not having read past the fifth page of the book. Apparently five pages of the introduction — it wasn’t even the first chapter — was enough for him to feel he had thoroughly understood and engaged with the book’s material.

It is a strange thing to live in an age where every thing demands an opinion, no matter how  dishonestly we may come by it, and every opinion is both instantaneous and public. I had both of these incidents in my mind when I ran across a Wall Street Journal opinion piece this morning, Barton Swaim’s “For Sanity’s Sake, Delete Your Account“:

The in­stan­ta­neous aware­ness of so much folly is not, I now think, healthy for the hu­man mind. Spend­ing time on Twit­ter be­came, for me, a deeply de­mor­al­iz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Of­ten, espe­cially when some con­tro­versy of na­tional im­por­tance pro­voked large num­bers of users into tweet­ing their opin­ions about it, I would come away from Twit­ter ex­as­perated al­most to the point of mad­ness.

I thought of a verse from the 94th Psalm: “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are van­ity.” Af­ter an hour or so of watch­ing hu­man­i­ty’s stu­pidi­ties scroll across my screen, I felt I had peeked into some dread­ful abyss into which only God can safely look. It was not for me to know the thoughts of man.

Indeed.

Advent & Christmas

It’s coming up on 10:30 pm on Christmas Eve as I sit down to write this post — I am just back from our church’s 8 pm service, and making our Christmas ready for the morning. There’s cider and cloved clementines in the crock pot, the stockings are stuffed and under the tree, the children are nestled all snug in their beds… probably not with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads — I’m not precisely sure what a sugarplum is, come to think of it — but asleep, anyway, which is the main thing! And I am listening to a broadcast of the wonderful St. Olaf Christmas Festival (which you can download for free from their page).

I’ve been meaning to write an Advent post since Advent started, which perhaps gives you a sense of what it’s been like for our family this year: joyous, but full. But I do want to highlight two books that have shaped Advent for me this year.

The first is Susan H. Swetnam’s book Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace. I read it toward the beginning of December and it was a lovely little invitation into the season. Swetnam  takes the reader through a series of short vignettes from her own life, looking at her personal Advent traditions as well as the graces she has found therein. It’s a sweet book, and a quick read. One theme that it highlighted for me was that of patience; I’ve been thinking a lot about the patience of Mary, waiting out those nine long months between the Annunciation and Christ’s Nativity. And I’ve been learning a practical lesson about patience — and perhaps one about hubris — after getting about 90% through my Christmas stocking before realizing that I’d done it all wrong and had to rip everything out and start over (this had me feeling more like Penelope un-weaving her tapestry every night than like gracious Mary!).

The other book I haven’t finished yet, not quite, but I’m going to talk about it anyway: Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Man Born to be King, which is a play cycle depicting the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth, in twelve radio plays which were originally broadcast on the BBC in monthly installments during WWII. I am a huge Sayers fan — I wrote my masters thesis on some of her theology — and these plays have only increased my admiration for her capabilities as both theologian and dramatist. The first play, “Kings in Judea,” covers the time period from the visit of the Magi to Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt, with a retrospective section for the shepherds’ story as well. It’s a beautiful play. C. S. Lewis read The Man Born to be King every year in Lent; I think I will be reading at least “Kings of Judea” every year in Advent. Here’s a little bit of dialogue from the Magi’s visit with Herod the Great:

HEROD: Twelve days. (musingly) In the House of the Lion — the Lion of Judah — the House of David. It may be so. Bethlehem is called the City of David — did you know that? And the Scriptures speak of Bethlehem. Priest and king. Have you calculated his horoscope? What sort of man will this be that is born to be King of the Jews?

MELCHIOR: Prouder than Caesar, more humble than his slave; his kingdom shall stretch from the sun’s setting to the sun’s rising, higher than the heavens, deeper than the grave, and narrow as the human heart.

CASPAR: He shall offer sacrifice in Jerusalem, and have his temples in Rome and in Byzantium, and he himself shall be both sacrifice and priest.

HEROD: You speak mysteries. Tell me this; will he be a warrior king?

BALTHAZAR: The greatest of warriors; yet he shall be called the Prince of Peace. He will be victor and victim in all his wars, and will make his triumph in defeat. And when wars are over, he will rule his people in love.

Amen and amen.

So this is the end of Advent. Tomorrow we will wake up into the fullness of Christmastide: stockings and presents, church and family, carols and feasts and all the rest of it — but above all, to the celebration of the one who came as King not just in Judea, as Herod feared, but in all the world and for all eternity.

A merry and blessed Christmas to you and yours!

Charles Williams on poetry

I am currently struggling through Charles William’s text The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a pleasant struggle, but I am feeling my dearth of a classical education here. I have no Latin, I have no Italian, and I’ve only read The Divine Comedy and none of Dante’s other work. But I’ve had this book on my shelf for a few years now and it felt like the right time to pick it up — especially since I have a hankering to re-read the Comedy, perhaps in the new year.

At any rate, I’ve been wading through Williams’s prose, dredging out such insights as I may. I am not getting as much out of this as others might, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean I’m not getting anything out of it — and last night I found a wonderful gem about poetry:

The poems (in both? certainly in both) have two meanings — literal and ‘allegorical’; he will deal with both. It is perhaps worthwhile pointing out that when a poem is said to have two meanings, both are included in the poem; we have only one set of words. The meanings, that is, are united; and the poem is their union. The poem is an image with many relevancies, and not only so, but it is itself the expressions of the relevancy of its own images to each other. The poem, not the literal or allegorical meanings, is the existing thing, the image we have to deal with; the meanings assist and enrich the line; they do not replace it (which is the danger of all — even necessary, even Dante’s — criticism and comment). One goes outside the poem, in following the meanings, but only to return; only to centre again what, for a good purpose, has been de-centred. (Williams, The Figure of Beatrice, 45)

That is a very helpful image for me, especially when we are talking about the “meaning” of a poem: there is a plain or literal meaning, and there is often a secondary allegorical or figurative meaning, and each is equally what is meant and expressed by the same words. Their meanings are in contrast to each other without being in competition with each other, because it’s the unity-in-tension that they form that is the poem.

There is a paradox here — or something that seems paradoxical to us, at any rate. But it made me think of another paradoxical image, one that surely came to mind because of Williams’s subject matter: Dante’s vision of the Trinity at the very end of Paradise, the concluding volume of The Divine Comedy. In this final canto, Dante has been granted (through the intercession of St. Bernard and the Blessed Virgin Mary, a vision of the Godhead at the centre of the created universe. He writes,

Now, even what I recall will be exprest
More feebly than if I could wield no more
Than a babe’s tongue, yet milky from the breast:

Not that the living light I looked on wore
More semblances than one, which cannot be,
For it is always what it was before;

But as my sight by seeing learned to see,
The transformation which in me took place
Transformed the single changeless form for me.

That light supreme, within its fathomless
Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare
Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were
Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame
Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept — which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame!

(Dante, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, The Divine Comedy III: Paradise, XXXIII.106-123)

The image of three spheres occupying the same space, and yet distinct, is one which our reason has difficulty grasping — so too the doctrine of the Trinity, so too William’s image of two meanings found united in one set of words. Yet we recognize a truth in these images, even as we grapple with them in our reasoned understanding. They are not anti-reason; they are rather beyond it.

I haven’t gotten far enough along in The Image of Beatrice to get to The Divine Comedy — I just finished Williams’s chapter on the death of Beatrice and am about to start reading about the Convivio — but I am looking forward to further insights and connections when I do!