Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On Reading

"But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do." -C. S. Lewis from An Experiment in Criticism

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Father Brown

Since its early beginnings in Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and Edgar Allen Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue, detective fiction has been popular for both children and adults. These stories have left us with many immortal characters like Miss Marple, C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes. Another one of these characters was created by Christian writer and essayist G. K. Chesterton and is loved by many, both Christians and non-Christians alike. His name is Father Brown.

The Plot:

Father Brown is a short, stumpy Catholic priest who wears shapeless clothing and carries around a large umbrella and usually some packages that he is always fumbling with. He first appears in the story The Blue Cross which is followed by 51 other short stories divided into 5 separate books and is often aided by the jewel thief turned detective, Flambeau. He is a quiet and humble man, but for all of his appearances of clumsiness and naivety, Father Brown has a keen insight into human nature that helps him solve many baffling crimes and even says at one point "Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?".

My Review (Caution: Spoilers)

It is virtually impossible for me to review these Father Brown stories without comparing them to perhaps the greatest fictional detective of all time, Sherlock Holmes. Even Chesterton read and appreciated Arthur Conan Doyle's famous works and I believe that the comparison is the best way to bring out the qualities (and possible shortcomings) of this work.

Father Brown is said to be the character who is closest to Chesterton's own point of view. He solves his crimes through reasoning and is more concerned with the spiritual details of the case rather than the scientific. Whereas Holmes would solve a case based on his knowledge in chemistry, history and random facts, Chesterton describes his method in this manner: "You see, I had murdered them all myself.... I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was. " Instead of being concerned with observing every physical detail surrounding the case, Chesterton instead lays before us clues in the forms of the suspects themselves, encouraging us to get inside their minds and to think like they would think.

Because of the differences in Holmes' and Father Brown's methods, we cannot read the stories in the same way. With Holmes, we must pay attention to every physical detail that is given us. When Doyle describes the landscape, the weather and the crime scene he means something by it and it would behoove us to recognize the importance of each of these details. With Chesterton it is different. I spent the first few stories intensely studying his descriptions of the opening scenes only to discover that they had very little to do with the crime itself. Only later did I discover that like Father Brown, we must concern ourselves with the people of the story, not the things.

There is, however, one similarity between Holmes' method and Father Brown's and that is there is always a rational explanation for each case. Chesterton actually adds some humor by the fact that many of the characters who would claim to be very rational are the first to believe that there was a supernatural cause for a certain crime, whereas Father Brown (who we would think would be more inclined to attribute the crime to something supernatural) always discovers the truth rationally. "You attacked reason. It's bad theology."

In the end, the Father Brown stories act as the perfect counterbalance to Sherlock Holmes. Though they can seem a little slow-going at first, each story gets progressively more interesting, and as we change our point of view, we are able to glimpse the many biblical truths concerning human nature that Chesterton was trying to convey. Though these stories don't beat Doyle's masterpieces, they are a wonderful contrast to them and are truly worth your time.

The Movie:

In 1954, the movie Father Brown was made starring Sir Alec Guinness as the famous detective. It is widely regarded as a minor classic and is even said to have prompted Guinness' conversion to Catholicism.

There are also 13 episodes of the Father Brown TV series of 1974 starring Kenneth More as Father Brown. These are now available on DVD.

Trivia: These two Father Browns starred together in the 1970 musical Scrooge with Guinness playing Jacob Marley and More playing the Ghost of Christmas Present.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Great Post

In this interesting article, Martin Cothran of Memoria Press takes a look at the Harry Potter stories, the "dangers" of great literature, and the importance of not mistaking good literature for great literature. Here is a sampling:

"To a child who is not well-read, Harry Potter is dangerous—and so is any other book he or she may read. But the best defense against one idea is not fewer ideas, but more of them; and the best defense against one book is a whole host of them. Being widely read, in other words, is the best inoculation against the dangers of literature. Being widely read enables a person to not only see an idea, but, as Chesterton put it, to see through it.

Literature is dangerous—except when taken in large doses."


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Illuminating Television

There is no doubt that the best way to get kids to read is to read to them. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my love of reading stems directly from the fact that not only did my mom read lots of books herself, she also made a point to read to me almost daily. I also know that the vast majority of children's television shows are mindless entertainment, no matter how "educational" they claim to be. But there were some exceptions as I was growing up. In particular, there were 3 PBS children's shows that while not influencing me to the extent that my mom did, they did encourage me to read and also influenced the reading choices that I continue to make today.

Based on the books by Marc Brown, this series was a great encourager of reading, even though that was not always the main theme of the show. Many of the characters read and would often hang out at the library. In one episode they even did a musical number called "Having Fun Isn't Hard (When You've Got a Library Card)". I often identified with the show's main character Arthur Read (get it?!) and his passion for books. I distinctly remember one episode where Arthur was going on and on about his love of books. Then his best friend Buster walked up and asked who cared about books and reading. Arthur fainted, and so did I.

Reading Rainbow

Created and hosted by actor LeVar Burton, this is probably one of the best shows to not only encourage children to read, but to also educate them on many subjects. Each episode centered around a theme (hats, pizza, cheese, dancing, etc.) , and it would use LeVar's adventures as well as a book to teach more about whatever that theme might be. It also introduced kids to some of the best children's books out there, like Ox Cart Man, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Little Nino's Pizzeria, and Rechenka's Eggs. This was one of my family's favorite shows to watch, and we continue to reminisce about our favorite episodes.

This was probably the best children's program ever created. It follows the adventures of a Jack Russell Terrier named Wishbone and his owner and friends. In each episode, Wishbone's owner Joe and his friends encounter some kind of problem, and as Wishbone tries to help (he can talk, but only the audience understands him) he is reminded of a great book that mirrors the problem the humans are facing. The episode bounces back and forth between the "real world" (Joe and his friends) and an adapted version of the book being played out by actors and Wishbone. The beauty of this program was that it introduced kids to the plot of many great works of literature without overwhelming them. There were many times that I would watch an episode and be so interested in the story, that I would have to read the book. And we are not talking about fluffy books, we are talking about the great stuff: Silas Marner, Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice, and Robin Hood just to name a few. The show ended up spawning a series of the great books that had been re-written for children, as well as a series of videos of the different episodes. This was such a wonderful series that introduced me to the world of classic literature, and even today I will read a book and be reminded of an episode of Wishbone.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Happy Birthday Anne!

The world's favorite redhead turns 100 this year. First published in 1908, L. M. Montgomery's classic Anne of Green Gables continues to captivate readers today. Who can forget the story of the redheaded orphan with an irrepressible imagination and a gift of talking who worms her way into the hearts of everyone she meets, no matter how reluctant they are. This story remains extremely popular all over the world and has been translated into 36 languages. Here are 10 ways to celebrate this momentous occasion:

10. Visit Prince Edward Island. You can visit the Green Gables farmhouse in Cavendish or hike through Balsam Hollow, the inspiration for the "Haunted Woods". If you go in the summer, you can attend PEI's two musicals based on the books: "Anne of Green Gables" and "Anne & Gilbert".

9. Go on an outing with your "bosom friend". Though Anne was quite capable of getting herself into scrapes without any assistance, it was always twice as much fun when Diana was involved.

8. Make some raspberry cordial. One of Anne's most famous mishaps involved Diana, a tea party and a bottle of currant wine. Here is a recipe for the drink that Anne was supposed to serve.

7. Read Tennyson's "Lancelot & Elaine". Who can forget Anne as "The Unfortunate Lilly Maid" having to be rescued by the last person in the world she wanted to see, Gilbert Blythe. Here is the poem that she and her friends were acting out.

6. Host a concert. Have a party where you and your friends recite your favorite poems like Anne did at the White Sands hotel. White organdy dress optional.

5. Begin writing a poem or short story. Your creation may not win a prize from a baking powder company, but perhaps that is best.

4. Rename your surroundings. Anne liked to shake her world up by renaming her ordinary surroundings. Whether it is your bedroom, your car or a nearby street, this is a simple way to add newness to the ordinary things around you.

3. Find some Kindred Spirits. Though Diana would always be Anne's closest friend, Anne was not adverse to making new friends. From Miss Lavender and the ladies of Patty's Place to Captain Jim and the beautiful but lonely Leslie Moore, Anne encounters many Kindred Spirits in her adventures, often when she least expects to find them.

2. Watch the films. If you have never seen the 1985 & 1987 television films Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, then you have no idea what you are missing. Megan Follows, Jonathon Crombie and a host of other wonderful actors bring these beloved stories to life in a beautiful and faithful way.

1. READ THE BOOKS!! Or, as in my case, re-read them!!

Monday, July 7, 2008


I am now more than halfway through my summer reading challenge. The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring are behind me and I have only to finish The Two Towers and The Return of the King. I didn't know exactly how much concentration and effort it was going to take for me to read these books. Though the writing itself is easy to read and understand, there is something about these stories that demands your full attention. They have really been giving my brain a workout.

Since I will soon be approaching the end of my challenge, I have been thinking about what books I should read next. I think that I have come up with a list that will hopefully take me through the end of the year.
  • Emma by Jane Austen. This is the last of the Austen novels for me. It is said to be her best work and is a favorite with many, but I'm a little skeptical. We'll see how it stacks up to Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor. I have been meaning to get around to this author for a little while now, but have always gotten distracted. I have been reading some reviews on her works and something tells me that they will be very different from what I normally read.
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. I've already read Charlotte and Emily, so I might as well read the other Bronte sister. If it's anything like Jane Eyre it will be good.
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I have heard about this book off and on for the past year or so and am finally getting around to it. According to Wikipedia it "details the spiritual lives behind the facades of an aristocratic family and their friend...". Should be very interesting.
  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Masterpiece's Cranford piqued my interest in the works of this author who is supposed to be a mixture of Austen, Dickens and Bronte, so I decided to start with one of her most popular novels. By the way, this is about the differences between Northern Victorian England and Southern Victorian England, not the American Civil War.

Throughout the fall I will also be listening to the Classics of British Literature course from The Teaching Company. It will explore many British works from Beowulf to Scott to contemporary works and focuses mainly on how Britain's social landscape created these great works, and also how these works changed Britain's social landscape forever.

Anyway, that is how the rest of my year seems to be shaping up. Feel free to offer suggestions as to any works that I should add to my list. Also, if you have read any of the above works, I would appreciate any and all reviews of them.