Animal Farm

animal farm

Animal Farm, by George Orwell. Originally published in 1945. Paperback 140 pages.

I read the book online for free at this link.

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others ~Animal Farm

This is a book that hardly needs an introduction. Our language has erected an entire lexicon around ideas we describe as Orwellian. Of course, we most often hear that particular term, Orwellian, used in reference to circumstances that resemble the narrative Orwell unfolded in his famous novel 1984. Although the allegorical Animal Farm paints a different, equally somber picture of human corruption, cultural manipulation, political malfeasance, his use of animals universalized its presentation.

In fact, the reason I re-read this book over the weekend, several decades since I first encountered it in high school, is that our children are currently reading it as a literature class assignment. I am really looking forward to hearing how they process this story. In the highly unlikely chance that someone may not be familiar with the story of Animal Farm, we’ll start with a brief synopsis.

On Manor Farm, the animals live the way farm animals live. They fulfill their work to produce income for the farm’s owner, Mr. Jones, and they are fed food appropriate to their needs and species. Life is neither misery nor bliss. It simply is what it is: farm life.

Brewing inside the heart of Old Major, the oldest boar on the farm however, was a dream that one day, animals would throw off the yoke of oppression which humans used to bind them.

“Now, comrades, what is the nature of this life of ours? Let us face it: our lives are miserable, laborious, and short. We are born, we are given just so much food as will keep the breath in our bodies, and those of us who are capable of it are forced to work to the last atom of our strength; and the very instant that our usefulness has come to an end we are slaughtered with hideous cruelty. No animal in England knows the meaning of happiness or leisure after he is a year old. No animal in England is free. The life of an animal is misery and slavery: that is the plain truth.

“But is this simply part of the order of nature? Is it because this land of ours is so poor that it cannot afford a decent life to those who dwell upon it? No, comrades, a thousand times no! The soil of England is fertile, its climate is good, it is capable of affording food in abundance to an enormously greater number of animals than now inhabit it. This single farm of ours would support a dozen horses, twenty cows, hundreds of sheep–and all of them living in a comfort and a dignity that are now almost beyond our imagining. Why then do we continue in this miserable condition? Because nearly the whole of the produce of our labour is stolen from us by human beings. There, comrades, is the answer to all our problems. It is summed up in a single word–Man. Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished forever.

He didn’t expect to live to see or participate in the animal rebellion, and he didn’t. But before he died, he made a rousing speech complete with an animal national anthem, and the animals he left behind began to plan for the revolution which would one day come. In that day, all animals would be equal comrades, wealth would be shared equally, no animals would kill other animals, and Utopia will be realized.

When the opportunity presented itself the animals revolted, fought hard, and won their freedom. It wasn’t long however before their stated principles gave way to reality, unlike anything the more gullible animals had expected after their “freedom” was secured. The pigs, descendants of Old Major, were the cleverest of all the animals and it wasn’t long before the camaraderie gave way to hierarchy, with everything this implies.

Seeing as I read this entire book in roughly 2 hours, I’d say it’s worth your time to reacquaint yourself with this modern classic. It’s particularly relevant in our current cultural and political environment.

Orwell really was a masterful writer, and Animal Farm is a wonderful book.

5 out of 5 stars.

In His Steps

In His Steps, Kindle Edition, by Charles M. Sheldon. Originally published in 1896. 156 print pages.

In His Steps is the classic Christian novel by Charles M. Sheldon. It is, I think the first fictional work I’ve read in quite some time that ran counter to my usual experience of reading fiction much more quickly than nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent a couple of extra weeks both reading this book and contemplating my review of it.

I know what I think of the book, and I know what I am supposed to think of this beloved and renowned work and its author, and my challenge is reconciling my two warring perspectives of the book. Last night, as I was falling asleep, it hit me. Dubois’ theory of double consciousness strikes at the heart of my wrestling with this book. In reality, this inner conflict is hardly isolated to the realm of race in America. I am increasingly able to see how, given our history of merging the political and the religious, the American Christian, sans vigilance, can be afflicted by this same phenomena of double consciousness. We’ll get back to that in bit.

Since I both liked and struggled with In His Steps, depending on the scene it which it was set, we’ll start with a brief synopsis of the plot of the story.

The Rev. Henry Maxwell, pastor of First Church of Raymond, experiences a crisis of faith after a homeless man enters his church and challenges him and his congregation concerning the veracity of their faith in action. A few days later Jack, the homeless man, dies. Maxwell grapples with everything the man said to his congregation that day, and begins to earnestly pray and reconsider his and his congregation’s comfortable, self-satisfied faith. Not only is it void of personal sacrifice, but it is more of a merit badge signaling class and decency than evidence true, Christian discipleship.

The next Sunday, Rev. Maxwell enters the pulpit a changed man, with a renewed passion for Christ and the gospel message. After shocking his congregation with a sermon and prayer lacking the rehearsed polish and poise they have become accustomed t, he ended the morning’s worship by challenging his congregants to embark with him on a new journey. Specifically, he has resolved to filter every life decision through prayer and the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?”

So WWJD wasn’t just a 90s slogan that looks good on t-shirts and rubber bracelets!

Initially, about 50 of his congregants join him in prayer and resolve to do nothing without prayerfully and earnestly considering whether Jesus would do the thing in question. The results are remarkable, and many of the players involved encounter situations where their commitment to living as they believe Jesus would come at great personal sacrifice. Some lose jobs, some lose money, and others find that relationships are tested. However, having pledged wholeheartedly to embrace the Christian promise that every one that has forsaken houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundred times, and shall inherit everlasting life, they forge on in faith.

There were a few who fell away when difficulties arose, but overall, the town itself was reinvigorated with all that was taking place. I especially appreciated the way that the congregation of First Church of Raymond left their cushy, prosperous lives and donated time and energy to minister to the people in the roughest, most obviously sin-scarred parts of their town. It was a picture of revival that any Christian can’t help but be moved by.

In addition to the self-sacrifice and commitment to being the hands and feet of Jesus outside the four walls of their brick and mortar edifices, there were others who were committed to transforming their entire city for the glory of Christ. Commitments to be more active in promoting Christians in politics and shutting down saloons to curb liquor consumption was a theme that ran strong throughout the book. It’s also where my wrestling began until I recognized that this is not a new problem and that W.E.B. DuBois had expressed it well describing the freed slaves in America trying to reconcile their American citizenship with an oppressive culture constantly reminding them of their foreignness. Before I explain further, here’s a portion of DuBois’ original quote:

“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Now I’ll rework it to show how it directly relates to the conundrum of the American Christian, particularly in light of our traditional intertwining of our faith and our governing principles:

One ever feels his twoness, — an American citizen, and a citizen of heaven; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one fleshly body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

As I read the portions of In His Steps from my current spiritual (and political) vantage point, I couldn’t help but fell a sense of wariness at the notion that Christians can somehow “Christianize” the dominant culture as many of the well-meaning actors attempt to do in Sheldon’s city of Raymond, and later as the book’s setting moved to Chicago. The whitewashing of external unpleasantness can make it easy to become complacent about our need for repentance. The temptation is strong to believe teetotalling, calf-length dresses, and sin locked away in the dark is evidence of our spiritual fitness. Michael Horton expands on this way of thinking in his piece on American captivity of the church.

Because of my tendency to inwardly squirm with discomfort at the idea, I had to remember that books are written relevant to the time and place in which they were written. Once I was able to remember that, I was able to relax and enjoy In His Steps a lot more and understand why it has remained a beloved book, touching the hearts of generations of Christians new and old for over 100 years. We would all do well to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?” in our day to day living, and then act and love others accordingly. Against such things there is no law.

4 out of 5 stars

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 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.

 

 

Johnny Tremain

johnny tremain

Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, originally published in 1943. 320 pages.

This is a historical novel set on the cusp of the American Revolution and is a good fit for middle grade readers, ages 10-13.

Johnny Tremain is a young and talented but arrogant orphan being apprenticed by a highly regarded but aging Boston silversmith. Mr. Lapham, Johnny’s master, has grown so frail and infirm that Johnny basically runs the silversmith shop. The Lapham women, comprised of Mr. Lapham’s widowed daughter-in-law and her three daughters, feed Johnny’s vanity, treating him like a king because of his extraordinary talent and because he is set to inherit the silversmith business which they all depend on for their livelihood. Mr. Lapham makes every effort to counsel Johnny in the ways of piety and humility, often to no avail.

While violating his master’s rule regarding not working on Sundays, Johnny severely injures his hand trying to fill a rush order for a wealthy client. Just like that, his entire life is turned upside down. He is turned away from the Laphams and the silversmith shop. He is no longer the heir apparent. After many struggles, he finds a new path and a new purpose as the American colonists ramp up their rebellion against the British crown and the Revolution gets underway.

I enjoy well written historical fiction, but this was the first one I’d read in a long time directed toward children. Esther Forbes does a really great job illuminating the different arguments, factions, and issues surrounding the break of the American coloniies as well as the turmoil that it brought upon major port cities such as Boston.

One of the things I enjoyed about Johnny was his wit and his rugged ability to rise to the occasion and survive no matter how rough things got. His understanding of the grave turn life had taken in Boston is revealed in a dialogue he shares with a young woman who belongs to a family loyal to the crown:

“How old are you Johnny” she asked.
“Sixteen.”
“And what’s that-a boy or a man?”
He laughed. “A boy in time of peace and a man in time of war.”

I liked this book. Esther Forbes’ spin on the American Revolution with engaging characters and a story filled with action and intrigue offers a good opportunity to delve deeper into the American Revolution with young readers.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.