The Scarlet Pimpernel

scarlet pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emma Orczy.  Originally published in 1905. 304 pages.

You can read The Scarlet Pimpernel for free on Gutenberg.org.

Hurricane Dorian passed us by with a whimper, but we were still in stand still mode for the better part of three days, which gave me all the time I needed to power through this engaging page turner.

Set in 1792 during what is known as French reign of terror, The Scarlet Pimpernel weaves a story of a mysterious English hero who is rescuing the doomed aristocrats, who have survived to date, from the guillotine. This hero, The Scarlet Pimpernel, is a master of strategy and disguise as he outwits the French guards and whisks as many of the titled class as he can out of Paris, across the channel, and into the safety of England. England, where loyalty to the monarchy is high, and the very idea of the wholesale murder of noblemen in the name of  “liberté, égalité, fraternité” is an anathema, welcomes the refugee aristocrats to the safety of their shores.

Baroness Orczy’s classic novel is equal courses of adventure, intrigue, and humor, with a side nibble of romance. Even though it was assigned to our kid as a part of her literature class this semester, I am certain that I enjoyed and appreciated the layers and nuances a lot  more than she did.

The political intrigue and the character’s commentaries reveal Orczy’s understanding of the English astonishment and abhorrence of the murderous reign of Maximillien Robespierre. Even among our French heroes and heroines in The Scarlet Pimpernel, those who were more Republican than monarchist, there is an acute sentiment that the current actions of French’s republican government has gone too far.

“It is only in our beautiful France that wholesale slaughter is done lawfully, in the name of liberty and of brotherly love”

 

It is with this backdrop that we first meet Marguerite St. Jus Blankeney, the beautiful and intelligent young actress who is the toast of Paris, and not just for her artistic talents. An outspoken republican, Marguerite had recently married the rich, handsome and tall dullard Sir Percy Blankeney. The union was far from idyllic. Somewhere along the way, Sir Percy had turned out to be a totally different man from the one she thought she’d married, and while he adored her as the book opens, she held him in contempt, and she was far from alone in her assessment:

“…and in repose one might have admired so fine a specimen of English manhood, until the foppish ways, the affected movements, the perpetual inane laugh, brought one’s admiration of Sir Percy Blakeney to an abrupt close.”

 

Along the way, we learn that nothing is quite as it seems, and that Marguerite, for all her intelligence and beauty, has woefully underestimated and misjudged her husband, along with many other things.

“She looks very virtuous and very melancholy.”

“Virtue is like the precious odors, most fragrant when it is crushed.”

 

As the race ramps up for the Scarlet Pimpernel to save as many noblemen as he can, the political intrigue, adventurous shenanigans,  and masterful strategery of the elusive and anonymous hero kept me plugged in from beginning to end.

I do recommend The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s a stellar novel.

Content advisory: Murder, mayhem and violence associated with the French revolution, largely contained to the beginning and end of the book.

4 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: A Short Story

walter mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Kindle Edition. Story Originally published in 1939.

You can read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty online here for free. It’s a quick read. If you’ve never read it, I would love for you to read it since this review is full of spoilers.

Walter Mitty is a married man -at least middle aged but probably older- who lives his daily life taking orders from his wife, but inner life is the place where he gets to be the man he wishes he was. It doesn’t take much for him to retreat into his fantasy life. A hospital, a newspaper headline, any minute reference can send him off into an adventure of mythical proportions.

Unfortunately, Walter often zones out and goes to Fantasyland at the most inopportune moments, including behind the wheel of his car, where he almost hits another car:

“Back it up, Mac! Look out for that Buick!” Walter Mitty jammed on the brakes. “Wrong lane, Mac,” said the parking-lot attendant, looking at Mitty closely. “Gee. Yeh,” muttered Mitty. He began cautiously to back out of the lane marked “Exit Only.” “Leave her sit there,” said the attendant. “I’ll put her away.” Mitty got out of the car. “Hey, better leave the key.” “Oh,” said Mitty, handing the man the ignition key. The attendant vaulted into the car, backed it up with insolent skill, and put it where it belonged.

That brings me to a question I pondered with one of my daughters who also read the story:

Which came first: The Chicken or the Egg?

The story opens with Mrs. Mitty unpleasantly pulling Walter from yet another one of his intense daydreams. He finds him driving them into town at an unacceptable 55 miles per hour, a full 15 mph faster than Mrs. Witty feels is safe. In fact, very few of Mrs. Mitty’s interactions with Walter are free of reproof, command, or request. Walter’s frequent trips to faraway exotic places, and his wife’s responses, left my daughter and me commiserating on what, if anything, James Thurber is trying to communicate here about Walter and Mrs. Mitty’s lot in life. It surely couldn’t be the idea his daughter wrote in the introduction of the Kindle edition:

I celebrate his Daydream Method of small vacations from tedium and “quiet desperation”. As a child I was reassured to know that this practice could continue into grown-up years.

The chicken or the egg question as it came up in our discussion at home was this: Was Walter Mitty given to these sudden and occasionally dangerous daydream vacations because his wife was a nag who made him miserable, or had she become a nag as a result of Walter’s inability to live in reality long enough to do anything more than just enough to get by? Thurber doesn’t tell us, leaving the readers to come to their own conclusions.

Recently, we watched the 2014 film adaptation of this story, which is quite different from the original James Thurber story, save for the frequent daydream vacations taken by the title character. Hollywood leaves us with a Walter Mitty who finds so much real-life adventure, including true love that his need for vacations to Fantasyland diminish to nearly nothing.

Thurber’s original story leaves us with Walter in the rain, leaned up against the wall of a drugstore, where his wife commanded him to wait for her, smoking a cigarette as he heads off into his imagination, where without fear, he faces a firing squad.

The Old Man and the Sea

old man and the sea

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, published in 1952. 112 pages.

This weekend, I decided to read this short novel from Hemingway for a couple of reasons. The first is his poetic way of describing natural beauty, and the second is because this is a very short book, and I was guaranteed to finish it off in less than two days. It is a very satisfying man vs. nature novella.

Santiago is an old fisherman, once successful, who has experienced a long run of bad luck on the seas. For a time, the young boy Manolin was his apprentice fisherman, and caretaker on and off the boat. However, since Santiago has gone for so long without catching any fish, his parents forbid him from fishing with him any longer. They send him to apprentice with more successful fishermen.

Manolin obeys his parents, but his heart is still with old Santiago, and he checks in on the solitary fisherman every morning and every night. He makes sure that he eats, gets him his morning coffee, and they talk baseball. Both love Joe Dimaggio.

One morning Santiago heads out early, determined that it will be the day his luck turns around. He loads his skiff and sails out farther than he normally would, following the current and the birds overhead who seem to indicate a place where he’ll find a large school of fish.

The thing I love about this book, despite having zero experience with sailing, is the way the sea is almost a character all its own. This was something I noticed when reading The Lion’s Paw and Captains Courageous as well. Here, Hemingway contrasts the way older fishermen like Santiago and younger fishermen characterize the sea:

He [Santiago] always thought of the sea as la mar, which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things about of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as el mar, which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought. p.29-30

Leaving aside the political correctness or lack thereof in Hemingway’s description, it’s a poetically beautiful description of the sea which gives the reader a vivid picture of how much the old man loves her.

On the day when he goes far out to sea, his luck does indeed turn. He hooks a gigantic marlin, so large that it pulls him farther and farther out to sea. He holds on to marlin, suffering intense pain, hunger, and discomfort for two days. In the end…

You’ll just have to read it, which you can do for free right here. It’s so short that the only thing left is the ending, and I don’t want to spoil it for you!

4 out of 5 stars.

 

 

The Phantom Tollbooth

phantom tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, originally published in 1961. 272 pages.

We read The Phantom Tollbooth this semester as part of a middle school writing and literature class I taught. It’s an interesting, fantastical book and initially, I wasn’t sure how the kids would react to it. Throughout the school year, there have been differing verdicts offered by the kids on various books and rarely a consensus. However, this book drew unanimous approval from each of the students. The sample size is pretty small, but since I agreed with their opinion, it’s safe to say it’s a great middle grade book.

The opening chapter offers a description of Milo, the reluctant hero of our story:

There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.

The link above leads to the entire first chapter as reprinted on NPR. It’s an excellent chance to get a fuller picture of Milo, as his ennui sets the stage for his adventure into the world opened up to him through the mysterious gift of a phantom tollbooth which appeared in his room.

In this alternate reality, Milo encounters a wholly different world from anything he has ever known. One where things and people make little sense even though they fascinate him in ways he has never imagined.

The thing that my students enjoyed most about this book was the combination of literal and metaphorical elements. For instance, one of the first groups of people Milo meets on his journey is a strange set of creatures known as “The Lethargarians”. They are weird, slug-like, live in a place known as “The Doldrums”, and their lives are lived as their name suggests. After outlining for Milo their detailed schedule of daily events which consist of little more than various forms of dawdling and daydreaming, they explain to him why the itinerary is so strict:

“As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we’d never get nothing done.”

“You mean you’d never get anything done,” corrected Milo.

“We don’t want to get anything done,” snapped another angrily; “we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help.”

“You see,” continued another in a more conciliatory tone, “it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along. Would you care to join us?”

“I might as well,” thought Milo; “that’s where I seem to be going anyway.”

“Tell me,” he yawned, for he felt ready for a nap now himself, “does everyone here do nothing?”

“Everyone but the terrible watchdog,” said two of them, shuddering in chorus. “He’s always sniffing around to see that nobody wastes time. A most unpleasant character.”

Tock, the literal watchdog is just one of the many intriguing and bizarre characters Milo encounters on his trip to Dictionopolis and on to a quest to be the hero of this strange world he has encountered as a result of his trip through the mysterious tollbooth.

Each character he encounters on his journey, from Tock to the Humbug to the Mathemagician and the Princesses Rhyme and Reason, adds a new layer of understanding and adventure to Milo’s journey. As a result, he ultimately learns that time is precious and his own world is full of fascinating things to learn and do.

4 out of 5 stars

No content advisory necessary.

Reading level: late elementary to early middle school. Younger students who are strong readers would have not trouble decoding, some of the allegorical notes may require explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

More big ideas in short stories

leaf_by_niggle_tolkien

Short stories, done well, are a literary treasures delivering a wealth of food for thought.

First inspired by Lindsay Brigham Knott’s piece at Circe Institute’s superb classical education blog, then further by Maeve at Wanna Be Martha, I spent a little time during a road trip this weekend reading short stories. The stories, which ran the gamut in terms of content and message, are all well done, literary treasures which delivered a wealth of food for thought. Each of these three linked stories are enjoyable, although in wholly different ways:

  • Thank You, Ma’am, by Langston Hughes: When a young purse snatcher picks the wrong mark on her way home from work one night, he gets far more than he bargained for, in the most unexpected ways.
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor: There’s not a whole lot to love here besides O’Connor’s deft turn of phrase and the uncomfortable irony which rounds out this strange tale. This is classic Flannery O’Connor. You kind of either love her work or hate it.
  • Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien: This one is last on the list, but certainly not least, as it’s the story I gleaned the most insight from of the three. Niggle fights the battle I have not yet conquered. It’s one which Lindsay Brigham Knott beautifully dissects in her Circe piece; the battle of mastering our time in such a way that we fulfill the duties of our vocations, fulfill our soul’s longings through our avocations, and get proper rest, all without being overwhelmed. Niggle learns this lesson “too late”. I interpret that Tolkien’s way of demonstrating how tough the battle is, even when, like Niggle, our hearts are “in the right place”.

If you happen to take the time to read any of these (or have read any of them), take a minute to include your opinions of them. I’m dying to know!

Related:

A Girl of the Limberlost

girl of the limberlost

A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton Porter, Kindle edition. Originally published in 1909. 306 print pages.

I was not very familiar with the work of Gene Stratton-Porter before reading this classic novel. She was just one name among many authors bibliophiles encounter along our trail of books. Some authors we read, others we tuck into our mental Rolodex for a later date. Stratton-Porter was one I’d tucked away for a later date.  I am grateful to say that I was induced to pull her from the recesses of my mind, out from among the heaps of jumbled authors and genres I hoped to some day read.

The Practical Conservative’s  posted review of her work was the impetus, and after some reconnaissance I learned that Stratton-Porter is one of my favorite kinds of writers: the regional sort, highlighting the beauty and culture of a particular time and place. In this case, the place and time are the swamps and forests of northeastern Indiana around the turn of the century. It is in this context that we are introduced to Elnora Comstock, the young heroine of A Girl of the Limberlost.

The Limberlost swamp  borders the land Elnora lives on with her widowed mother, Kate. As the story begins, she is a young teen who never knew the father who died while her mother was giving birth to her. Somehow, Elnora’s mother transferred all of her grief and bitterness over the death of her young husband onto the young girl. She was convinced that had she not been in labor with Elnora, she might have saved her husband from the tragic end which befell him when he sank into the quicksand of the Limberlost.

As we follow Elnora through her tumultuous terrain of life, her determination, kindness and virtue keeps readers at the edge of hope that the girl’s extraordinary character and work ethic will one day be fully rewarded:

It was a compound of self-reliance, hard knocks, heart hunger, unceasing work, and generosity. There was no form of suffering with which the girl could not sympathize, no work she was afraid to attempt, no subject she had investigated she did not understand. These things combined to produce a breadth and depth of character altogether unusual.

In the end, Elnora does reap the harvest she has so diligently worked for, yet without the fantastical sort of whirlwind that one often finds in these sorts of novels. One of the wonderful things about old stories is that they don’t often find the need to inject its hero or heroine with a fatal flaw. The postmodern tendency to denouce the notion of a character worth aspiring to gets tiring, which is I rarely read any modern fiction.

Stratton-Porter’s vivid portrayals of natural elements in the swamps along with the detailed descriptive categorizations of the moths and other creatures which Elnora was able to use to earn the money she needed to go to school were very beautifully executed. It was easy to imagine oneself standing at the edge of the Limberlost, taking in all the beauty, mystery, and danger one might find in a swamp.

I’ll end this review with one of my favorite lines from within it. Such wisdom could only have come from Elnora herself:

“I do not know why it is the fate of the world always to want something different from what life gives them.”

Heart wrenching and beautiful with a satisfying ending is my description of this classic book by Gene Stratton Porter. It would make an excellent summer read.

4 and 1/2 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

The Sun also Rises

the sun also rises

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. Originally published in 1926. 251 pages.

I don’t often re-read books, and the few that I have re-read are ones that have spiritual implications. C. S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer, and similar authors can draw me back in for a second read. I rarely give fiction books other than Jane Austen a second look.

Since beginning this book blogging experiment, I re-discovered something quite obvious: that reading a book during different seasons of life changes the way you react to that book. This is true for novels as much as any other books. It was true for Their Eyes Were Watching God, and If Beale Street Could Talk, so I have begun revisiting many of the novels that I would have listed as among my favorites a decade ago or more. One of those is Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which I read when I was much less wise, worldly, relationally, or spiritually, than I am now. I still appreciate Hemingway’s prowess with words, but the characters annoyed me this time in ways that they didn’t 20 years ago.

Jake Barnes is an injured war veteran whose injury left him impotent. The ultimate irony is when he falls in love with Brett, the nurse who cared for him as he recovered from his injuries. She is also a woman who very much in touch with her sensual nature. She loves him she declares, but not enough to resign herself to a sexless existence. The rest of the novel is a torturous journey with Jake through his adventures and friendships drinking and pining away after Brett throughout Spain.

Meanwhile, Brett drifts from lover to lover, breaking hearts and taking names then returning to Jake to pick up the pieces of the messes she leaves in her wake. At the end of the novel, her startling lack of self-awareness dawns on Jake:

“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “We could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.
Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Brett, after all that they have experienced, seems to believe that but for Jake’s injury, they would have had a wonderful life together. It strikes Jake as absurd as any of the things that had happened to that point.

Reliving the narrative of strong, gallant male characters employing strength and competence in every arena from the battlefield to the bull-fighting ring only to be felled by one little woman was a different experience than years prior. I don’t know that my understanding or opinions of the characters is different, just better perceived than before.

This is still one of my favorite novels, precisely because of the raw honesty Hemingway displays with the faults and virtues, such as they were, in his characters.

 

4 out of 5 stars