Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath

Featured

Author: Sigrid Undset (tran. Tiina Nunnally)
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: 1920 (1977)

Note: This review contains spoilers.
A great book does not need to create a likable central character to attract a reader. In fact, it can be the unattractive character who appeals to us in an exploration of evil, sin, or even a failure of morals. Or, conversely, we may find a character who is flawed but appealing in their humanity. Pulp fiction is built around detectives who both appeal and repel, but are ultimately attractive due to their humanness.

In Sigrid Undset’s first volume of the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, we find a young heroine who grows up to be so self-centered she is hard to like. In fact, she is quite unlikable but with none of the redeeming qualities we may find in other failed people. Instead, her life goes on and she seems to learn nothing from the damage she leaves in her wake.

This is 14th-century Norway and Kristin is the daughter of Lavrans and Rangfrid. While the mother is reclusive and depressed, Lavrans is a successful and popular farmer and close to young Kristin. They’ve lost infant sons and their youngest daughter, so Kristin is all they have. She is quick to fall in love, first falling for a farmhand who is later killed. Her father then gets her engaged to a young man she does not want to marry, but she agrees to spend time at the convent while awaiting her marriage. The convent is home not just to nuns, but young women waiting to return to life beyond the convent.

While there she meets Erlend Nikulausson in town and begins an affair with him (less than a year after losing her first love), including losing her virginity to him (the “wreath” represents her virginity). Erlend comes from a royal line but has been excommunicated by the Catholic Church and pushed aside by his family for having an open affair with a woman who is married to an elderly husband. Erlend and the woman, Eline, have two children together. While Erlend and Kristin profess their love for one another, Eline commits suicide. Kristin’s father is obviously reluctant to bless the union of Erlend and Kristin, so Kristin just acts depressed for nearly a year. Well, except when Erlend shows up again and she gets pregnant. Her father finally relents after his wife intercedes and Kristin manages to get married without people knowing her wreath is a lie.

In the end, I find her to be a self-centered young woman who forgets about her first love quickly, starts an affair she knows will tear apart her community, pushes away a father whom she has always loved, is not too upset when Erlend’s mistress conveniently kills herself, and in the end gets what she wants.

Sigrid Undset
Sigrid Undset

I don’t think I’m in the majority here. The trilogy is often cited as the reason that Undset received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Perhaps the other two volumes redeem Kristin, but I’m not patient enough to find out. While I may not like the main character, Undset’s writing is outstanding (as is the translation) and she brings medieval Norway to life. Some of the writing is pastoral, but she balances it with thoughtful dialogue and a range of characters. Kristin’s mother, Rangfrid, hovers on the edge for much of the book but when she emerges more at the end we see an insightful and deeply grieved woman.

In the end, I cannot recommend the book but I also know many will read it and enjoy it. We can’t love all the classics, but classics certainly rise above a sole blogger’s opinion.

The Keys of the Kingdom

Featured

Authors: A.J. Cronin
Publisher: Rosetta Books
Publication Date: 1941 (2015)

The Keys of the Kingdom book cover

A. J. Cronin wrote books well positioned in the Catholic tradition, but he does not present a sanitized view of the Christian faith and the challenges it presents to its followers. As a result, this excellent novel manages to delve into the depths of Christianity, show it sins, and still present the reader with hope. And this from a writer who does not fit into the traditional Christian framework.

The novel is set in the late in the 19th and early 20th century and tells the story of Father Francis Chisholm, a Scottish priest who discovers that his plans and God’s plans for him are not the same. He finds himself a curate who quietly does God’s work when others do not seem to like it. So, while his childhood playmate (friend would be too strong of a term) finds himself heading off to a glorious priestly career, Chisholm finds himself being sent off to rural China.

Even there he cannot follow the path set for him. While the Church prides itself of the number of converts, Chisholm loses his first converts when he finds out they are Christian because it provides them employment. He then turns down the conversion of a powerful village member who is converting because of medical help Chisholm offered to his family but Chisholm only accepts a conversion that is authentic.

Instead of seeking converts Chisholm decides to serve the village. With the help of some nuns sent to support him, Chisholm builds a mission that offers children an education, takes in the orphans, and feeds the village in times of need. But when a new warlord comes into the area and battles with village forces, Chisholm finds himself in a quandary. He rescues the wounded from the village and the new warlord demands compensation that will destroy the mission and the children and people within it. As a Christian, he is faced with the idea of entering the battle to save his people or to offer no harm, as his faith teaches him, and allow others to be hurt, raped, and/or killed. Either decision means death for others — not to decide is to decide.

It is these types of dilemmas that add such depth to this book. Chisholm is friends with the Presbyterian mission in town, refusing to see them as competition. He also peppers his conversations with quotes from Confucius. His openness to other faiths and denominations raises concerns among the institutional church. Even his greatly simple way of living, although very Christian, is viewed with suspicion.

In the midst of this Chisholm’s childhood “friend” is now his supervisor. While Cronin takes some easy shots at the priest who follows the company line to gain more power, he avoids a weak caricature that is easy to knock over. His characters have depth and he does a great job of creating a complex characters (in other words, realistic) such as Mother Maria-Veronica with whom he has a tempestuous relationship that develops into one of great friendship. No one is perfect in the book but Chisholm’s humility is born out of true faith.

The main story is held together between bookends of Chisholm’s time in Scotland which opens with him as an old priest who shares his story. At the end it returns to Chisholm as an old priest, but now we see him with new eyes.

A great book for Christians to read as it offers a realistic picture of the challenges and joys of faith, and a great book for non-Christians looking for an honest picture of the stumbling followers of Jesus.

A. J. Cronin

A.J. Cronin
Cronin was a Scottish physician who was sent to the countryside for six months to recover from an ulcer. During that time he wrote his first novel, Hatter’s Castle, which was such a success he spent the rest of his life writing. He wrote over 30 novels, many of which were made into movies, including the influential The Citadel in 1937 which won the National Book Award in the U.S. Although many of his books deal with the Christian faith, he was for a time agnostic and later came to appreciate the mixed marriage of his Presbyterian father and Catholic mother. You can read more about him here.

The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

casebook-of-sherlock-holmesMy love of Sherlock Holmes started when I was in junior high school and my oldest brother would take me to a little bookstore, “Call Me Ishmael,” in Saugatuck, Michigan. My brother could spend hours in that place, so one time I picked up “The Return of Sherlock Holmes,” settled down in a chair, and was quickly lost in Victorian England. I ended up reading all 56 short stories and 4 novels about Sherlock Holmes quickly, and I returned to them many times over the next 35 years.
One I have not read for many years is the final collection of short stories, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Now I know why — this is a forgettable collection of Holmesian lore. It is not without some good stories. “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” written in 1922, shows Holmes showing that brilliance we are used to seeing.  He solves a mystery of how one woman dies and in the process, saves the life of another woman about to die for a crime she did not commit. Apparently, the story is based on a real-life investigation which is very similar to the story. I don’t want to spoil any endings for new readers, but the recreation of the crime by Holmes is excellent.

 

the_adventure_of_the_creeping_man

“The Adventure of the Creeping Man”

That this is followed by “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” written a year later, only adds to the question of what was Doyle thinking? I’ve never bought into this story where an older man takes some monkey serum so he can be virile and ready for the young woman he wants to marry. This 19th century Viagra makes him act like a monkey and suddenly gives him the strength and ability to scale walls (pretty virile for a 61-year-old). Turns out that there was a Russian doctor working on such an item around when Doyle wrote this, so he may have read about it. Some commentators see this as more science fiction, but I see it as a Holmes story gone wrong.

 

But at least it is a story! “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” is nothing more than one woman telling Holmes of a crime committed several years early. No mystery to be solved — just her chatting away. “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” is a little better, but the mystery solved is no great mystery. “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” shows Holmes solving the mystery of a — wait for it — murderous jellyfish? Talk about a letdown.

But there is hope when we read stories such as “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” While not the best narrative, Doyle does create a modern-day criminal who is more sociopath than gentlemen criminal. Baron Gruner is downright scary. And, “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” shows Holmes doing some great sleuthing, although how he gets caught by a rival sleuth seems very un-Holmesian.

 

conan-doyle-stampIt is not appropriate to pass by all the stories without noting just how much a man of his times Holmes appears to be in “The Adventure of the Three Gables.” Unfortunately, that time was overtly racist and Watson’s stereotypic descriptions of an African man a Holmes’ stereotypic categorization of African’s is all too clear and too ugly in this story. It is not the only story in which this appears and women are not treated with too much respect unless they outsmart him (e.g. Irene Adler).

I’m not alone in my disappointment with these final stories. Holmesian scholars think some are so bad (and two are actually written by Holmes himself) that Watson is not the true author. [Note: many Holmes scholars treat Holmes and Watson as real people and see Doyle as someone helping out — they are not serious about it, but they usually talk in that vein and have a good time with it].

So, in the end, this is not the Holmes volume I’m sending you to read first. I still love my Sherlock Holmes stories and I think “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” reads like a “best of” collection because the stories are so strong. So start there and end with the Casebook — you’ll be more forgiving by that time.

Note on the title: “Case-book” is the British spelling, “Case Book” is the American version, and “Casebook” is just another spelling by publishers. My first version was “Casebook,” so I stuck with that.

David Golder by Irène Némirovsky

91-a-David-GolderThis novel by Nemirovsky, published in 1929, is a stark description of greed and its outcome. It offers little hope and is even more powerful as a result. Nemirovsky shows us David Golder, a self-made businessman who has risen from a from humble beginnings by being intelligent, focused, and ruthless. Now, in his late 60s, his own poor health makes him look at his equally greedy wife and selfish 18-year-old daughter with new eyes. The book opens with Golder showing no mercy to his lifelong business partner, now bankrupt, who then goes and kills himself. Golder returns later to his own home (he often lives in other cities) and is confronted with his greedy wife and her demands for money. She lives to impress others, even changing her name so that her Jewish background is hidden. His daughter is a spoiled child who spends time traveling with young men. Golder is completely under his daughter’s spell, even though he sees her for what she is, and she ultimately brings about his demise.

Recovering from a heart attack, Golder lets his business deals fall apart and intentionally drives himself to ruin. Only his daughter can convince him to make one last deal so she can have more money, and it becomes his final deal.

There is almost nothing redeeming in any of the characters, although you can see that Golder is at least torn by what he has become. He pines for the simpler life, but is beyond finding a way to return to it. On the brink of the depression, her story shows the individual dangers of wealth and greed. Her refusal to offer any hope forces the reader to address the desolate message, still relevant today. [Note: The novel was made into a film of the same name in 1931].

This was Nemirovsky’s debut novel, and she received strong critical acclaim for it. She

irene nemirovsky

Nemirovsky

went on to write several other novels, before being sent to Auschwitz and being killed in 1942 — she was 39. It should be noted that Nemirovsky, herself of Jewish origin, has been described as a “self-hating Jew” by some critics. Of a Russian-Jewish background, she spent most of her time in France. Her husband was also Jewish (and also died in Auschwitz), but she converted to Catholicism in 1939. She creates an interesting dilemma to study, and her writing shows the study will be worth the effort.

 

12 Years A Slave

12 years a slaveFull disclaimer: I’ve not seen the movie.

Okay, usually the disclaimer goes with a film review of a book turned into a movie, but this movie was so successful I thought I should mention it.

Being a book person, I thought I would read the book. I was quite moved by Harriet Jacob’s “Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl” many years ago, and have returned to Fredrick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” more than once. Histories of slave life can be informing, but hearing about the experience from a slave gives us a new perspective.

Like many books in this vein, Solomon Northup’s “12 Years A Slave” sounds almost dispassionate in its description. It is likely a matter of style and time that Northup can describe his experience almost objectively. His impassioned pleas sound formal, but this was not a time for emotional storytelling. However, one cannot read this book without hearing Northup’s struggle to survive this living hell. What is most insightful by Northup is that he realizes his unique position in the slave world (a free man taken into slavery) and he is sensitive to the plight of others. When you can look with compassion on others in the midst of your own suffering, you are a rare individual.

Northup’s patience with waiting for the right time to reveal his free status is amazing. He questions himself a bit in the book, but even his one failed attempt shows how little trust he could put in others. It also gives you a glimpse into how trapped slaves were, especially those like Northup who was not even near a city.

As a music lover, I was thrilled to see the advantages his musical skills brought him. The chance to travel off the plantation, to earn some money, and even find solace, all speak to the power of music. Even in the midst of the slave system, both masters and servants seek good musSolomon_Northup_engraving_c1853ic.

What is disconcerting to modern ears can be his praise of nice slave owners, or those who treat them in a Christian fashion (slavery aside). Again, Northup views these people as victims of the system, which in a way they are. Of course, we hold them more responsible for their actions today. But it is interesting, and difficult, to hear a former slave speak well of slave owners.

But in those words you find the honesty which makes this a good book. I had hoped to have my 14-year-old read it, but it will be a tough read. Northup at times gets into details which are historically interesting (how he caught fish), but make for slow reading. But those with patience will be rewarded.

Having read the book, I do want to see the movie. Adding more of a “story” to Northup’s writing could make for a moving story on film.

If you want to read more about Northup, the Wikipedia page has a good summary.

Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader

 

Hildegard cover Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a Benedictine abbess,  composer, and mystic. She is known by many today because of her music, but her creativity was born of mystical experiences which found their expression in a variety of ways. The book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader, is a reader which includes selections from her songs, theological texts, drama, liturgical music, and letters. Each section is introduced by the translator and editor, Carmen Acevedo Butcher, who also provides an introduction to this German woman who challenged the Church while producing in an astonishing range of artistic outlets.
 
Her songs can be especially moving, and Butcher says we may take that as a sign of being written in happy times. “But there were no such periods for this nun. She lived from illness to illness, conflict to conflict, responsibility to responsibility, and perhaps that is why we feel close to her, because, despite Hildegard’s many accomplishments, her life was clearly filled with the daily grind we all experience; and she through it.”
 
One example, her song “The Most Sanguine Moment” (Note: she did not give them titles — this is from the translator):
 
When the Creator actually spilled
His blood on the elements,
earth, air, water, and fire
screamed,
collapsed with grief,
shook from sadness.
Now, Father, with this gift
anoint our weaknesses.
 
Her letters show a very human side, and she never hesitated to direct people (including royalty

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

and Popes) as she thought best. Her drama seems unusual to our modern ears, but is worth reading as it is the earliest known morality play ever recorded.

 
It is in the theological works where her mystic self, as seen in visions, is most clear. She has tremendous visions which she describes in detail, and then explains. Giant people, piles of excrement, and speaking fire, water, earth, and air, are all part of what she sees. At times, her visions seem grand for the simple lessons, but at times they make us rethink our most basic beliefs. In explaining how one vision teaches us about the soul’s power, she says, “A person’s physical body is bigger than their literal heart, just as the soul is stronger than the body. This is what I mean: A person’s heart lies hidden within their body, just as the physical body is surrounded by and hidden in the soul’s powers, which cover the entire globe. Your body is in your soul, not your soul in your body.” 
 
In both her visions and her life, she was willing to turn things upside down to help profess God’s word. Although she battled with Church leaders, she was greatly respected and is now recognized as a Saint. In 2012, Pope Benedict the XVI recognized her as a Doctor of the Church, meaning one to study as well as imitate.
 
As such, this book is a great introduction as it provides a wide selection of her work, and just enough background to give it some context. 

The Land of Spices

ImageKate O’Brien’s novel, “The Land of Spices,” does not offer much in way of a summary. Published in 1941, the novel is set in an Irish convent of a French order and run by an English nun. But outside of the upsurge of Irish nationalism and some politics in the order, nations play a small role. Instead, the convent is its own world, which deals with the outside world through the students who go home for vacations. Mere Marie-Helene is the nun, and throughout the book we also see the growth of young Anna Murphy, from six to sixteen, as she moves through life. There is a bond between the two, but the relationship is intentionally kept at a distance. In fact, as readers we are kept at a distance, watching a story unfold slowly. Although there are two events which occurs to each of them near the end of the novel, and these are life-changing events, we still see at the end what looks to be a natural parting of ways. Natural, because, indeed,  it is natural. Roles changes. Life experiences change us. We all make different decisions.

 
Hardly a description to sell a lot of novels, but it is still a novel not to miss. What goes on in these pages show a great deal of the human character, the thoughts and events which shape us, the faith which challenges many of us, the relationships with present and past people, the choices we must make, and the pressures we face. And it does so without the unnecessary drama of self-obsessed people. 
 
There are many themes which could be explored here. We have the challenge of personal obedience and personal freedom, without either side being shown as a preference.  Mere Marie-Helene understands her obedience to God and her order come from a personal choice, her personal freedom. She also understands that not everyone will make the same choice, which is expected. 
 Image
From there rises the theme of humility and judgment. If she teaches her young charge nothing else, it is to be humble about oneself, which leads to less judging of others. “You will make what you must of the life for which we have tried to prepare you. And you have gifts for life. Spend your gifts, and try to be good. And be the judge of your own soul; but never for a second, I implore you, set up as a judge of another. Commentator, annotator, if you life, but never judge.” 
 
Other themes grow even stronger, including the impact of death, but to say more would be to give away too much of the plot. But O’Brien’s desire to face life is tied up in the comment, that “You cannot accept the mystery of life and refuse that of death.” 
 
Finally, as a fan of 17th century poetry, it was wonderful to see the importance of literature in this novel. The connection between the two characters comes because the six year old can recite a poem the nun learned as a child from her own father. The title itself comes from a George Herbert poem, which I provide simply for an excuse to sneak such a poem into my writing.

Prayer
Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days’-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.
 
The novel itself has a challenging history. The book was banned for lewdness because of the line “in the embrace of love.” Of course, it is not the line itself, but the context which caused the commotion. O’Brien herself fell out of popularity, and this novel (and I believe others) went out of print. It would have been a loss for this novel to remain unavailable, so the return is welcomed.