Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol

Public domain Kindle book, download it for free here: A Christmas Carol

I've seen about 6 film versions of A Christmas Carol, including one from the 1930's, one from the 1950's, one musical, one CGI film, and one version with Muppets, but I've never actually read A Christmas Carol until now. I'm so glad I did! It's familiar and moving, true, but it's also hilarious, which is something that rarely comes across in the movies. In the famous opening line, “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that,” the narrator follows up his statement with plenty of proofs about just how dead Marley is, and he continues to makes asides and comments to the reader throughout the book. The narrator is his own character, really, with opinions, tastes, and preferences, and he is very aware that he's narrating and keeps referring to himself in the first person. After some thought, I've decided that A Muppet Christmas Carol with its inclusion of Gonzo as a narrator comes the closest to hitting on the high pitch of descriptive comedy actually contained in the book.

Beyond the funniness, the sorrow in the book is also very palpable, and I'm particularly struck by Jacob Marley's suffering as it's portrayed in the book. There's an extra impact to the lines when they're read:
Scrooge: “What do you want with me?”
Marley: “Much.”
and later, “Speak comfort to me, Jacob!”
-“I have none to give.

Even with all of Marley's evident pain, Scrooge humbugs everything and it's extraordinary how much supernatural interference it takes to make him believe in anything but his own small power. Scrooge does eventually get accustomed to the weirdness, though, and the narrator says that as he waits for ghost number 2, he's expecting the sudden appearance of anything from a baby to a rhinoceros. I was eager to see the book's depiction of the Spirit of Christmas Past because this is the character that has been presented with the most variety in the film versions. I've seen the ghost presented as an old man, an old woman, a little girl, and a living flame. In the book, it's a child who also looks like an old man and a living flame—which clears up my mental image perfectly. (No, no it doesn't.)

I also love some of the details we get about Scrooge's past in the book. For example, Scrooge used to adore (and still gets very excited about) adventure stories like Robinson Crusoe and Abi Baba and the Forty Thieves. And book-Fezziwig is even fezziwig-ier than I've seen in movies, and he's prone to exclamations like “Yo-ho, hilli-ho, chirrup!” But he's not a silly figure for all this exclaiming; his heart is so generous that he brings joy to everyone around him, including people who are unpopular and mistreated.

I find it interesting is that this book with its odd phantoms and strange philosophy still manages to keep the “Christ” in Christmas. Most film versions take out any reference to Jesus' birth or even to God beyond Tiny Tim's “God bless us, every one!” But here, the child born in Bethlehem is mentioned fairly regularly as being a key part behind why we should love our neighbors.

A Christmas Carol is a pleasure to read. It perfectly portrays the contrast between the abundant plenty of Christmas feasts among those with wherewithal, and the the cold, pinched deprivation of people who are outside. The point of the story is that Scrooge must become the kind of person who brings all that warm, hearty merriness from the inner circle and carries it to those who are in need. He does so beautifully and admirably. May that truly be said of us, and all of us. Grade: A

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Book of Ezra

The book of Ezra is about the nation of Israel's second exodus. The first exodus was such a big deal that there was an entire book devoted to it (aptly named Exodus), but this one doesn't get as much attention.

Israel has been in captivity for a good long while...about 70 years. Nearly the entire country, the part that wasn't slaughtered, was carried off to live in Babylon and in Ezra, Cyrus the king of the Persian empire is moved by God to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. You can tell this is an act of God because proud conqueror-type guys don't usually decide to rebuild houses of worship in long-defeated countries far away. There's nothing in it for Cyrus except God's approval. Not only does he want the Israelites to leave and build the temple, he's going to finance the journey and encourage his citizens to give the Israelites gold and supplies.

Chapter 2 lists the people who leave Persia to go back to Judah, but it lists them by family not by individual names. Verse 62 has an interesting note about the descendants of Israel, because a bunch of families want to be registered as Israelites to go back and build the temple, but their bloodlines have been so muddied and the genealogical records so misplaced that no one can be certain that they count as Israelites. That's a sad state of affairs--after 70 years in captivity, God's people have gotten slightly mixed up about who's who. But nothing's a mystery to God, and it is said that the people with questionable family trees will be checked out with there is a priest ministering with the Urim and and Thummim to find out the truth. 42,000 Israelites in total go back to Judah and they all settle down in their cities.

The priests re-establish the burnt offerings and holy feasts of the past, and Levites are appointed to help with the temple work. The builders lay the foundation for the temple, and most everyone's so happy that they scream and shout for joy. But some of the old people in the congregation actually remember the first temple, and the image of how far they've fallen makes them cry. The noise of the tears and joy mingles together and is heard a long way off.

But though the foundation is laid, it's not long before some nasty bureaucracy gets in the way of the temple's rebuilding. For one thing, Cyrus dies and king Artaxerxes doesn't have such a high regard for Israel as his predecessor. He orders the building stopped so that the Israelites won't get any ideas about independence and revolt when their temple is complete. But no king lasts forever, and just as Cyrus' decree was revoked by Artaxerxes, Artaxerxes' decree is undone by king Darius. After Darius gives the go-ahead to finish the temple, it only takes about four years to complete it.

The titular Ezra doesn't appear until Chapter 7, where he goes up from Babylon and heads toward Jerusalem to help out in a few different ways. Ezra is a scribe, an intellectual person, but he also has practical abilities, and beyond these qualifications of talent, he loves the Lord : "For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgements" (7:10) Ezra finds his Israelite brethren in serious need of remembering God's law--plenty of the people have intermarried with non-Israelites, which is a serious no-no. Ezra is distraught and weeps before God, begging for mercy.

In present times, almost no one can grasp the severity of this issue. Marrying outside of your culture can be considered cool, and marrying outside of your faith is getting more and more common. In the Old Testament, marrying someone who doesn't love God is not a simple matter of being nontraditional, it's an inexcusable sin. Plenty of non-Jews converted (Rahab from Canaan comes to mind), but the foreign wives mentioned in Ezra have not converted. They still worship their gods, and the Israelite husbands thought this was okay until Ezra spoke up. The book of Ezra ends with a determination on the part of numerous men to divorce their foreign wives. Again, this sounds cruel to modern ears. How could these men abandon their wives? Well, they abandoned their God first, back when they chose to marry those wives. Horrible decisions lead to horrible consequences down the road. Fortunately, we now live in an era of mercy. God's mercy is available for those who ask for it, and He's not likely to ask you to divorce anybody, though you might be surprised at what He will ask.  

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Poetry Review: Farewell to Florida by Wallace Stevens

The four 10-line stanzas of this poem have captured my attention even better than Stevens' better-known poems like The Idea of Order at Key West and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. I want to get better acquainted with the poem, so I'll show it here and then do some criticism/analysis/explication afterward.

"Go on, high ship, since now, upon the shore,
The snake has left its skin upon the floor.
Key West sank downward under massive clouds
And silvers and greens spread over the sea. The moon
Is at the mast-head and the past is dead.
Her mind will never speak to me again.
I am free. High above the mast the moon
Rides clear of her mind and the waves make a refrain
Of this: that the snake has shed its skin upon
The floor. Go on through the darkness. The waves fly back

Her mind had bound me round. The palms were hot
As if I lived in ashen ground, as if
The leaves in which the wind kept up its sound
From my North of cold whistled in a sepulchral South,
Her South of pine and coral and coraline sea,
Her home, not mine, in the ever-freshened Keys,
Her days, her oceanic nights, calling
For music, for whisperings from the reefs.
How content I shall be in the North to which I sail
And to feel sure and to forget the bleaching sand ...
I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools
Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness
Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms
Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones,
The trees likes bones and the leaves half sand, half sun.
To stand here on the deck in the dark and say
Farewell and to know that that land is forever gone
And that she will not follow in any word
Or look, nor ever again in thought, except
That I loved her once ... Farewell. Go on, high ship.

My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime
Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds.
The men are moving as the water moves,
This darkened water cloven by sullen swells
Against your sides, then shoving and slithering,
The darkness shattered, turbulent with foam.
To be free again, to return to the violent mind
That is their mind, these men, and that will bind
Me round, carry me, misty deck, carry me
To the cold, go on, high ship, go on, plunge on."

At first I thought this poem was about a woman who lived in Florida, then for a long time I thought it was about Florida itself with the woman as a metaphor for it, and now I'm back to the "it's a woman" theory. But whichever you think the poem is about, it is clear that the speaker is running for his life from Florida and from "her".

The speaker is traveling on a ship, and it can't go fast enough for him. He keeps mentally encouraging the boat to go faster and it's almost like he's being hunted by his memories. The speaker keeps trying to say that he has cut all ties to Florida: "the past is dead," "I am free," and "she will not follow in any word," but it's hard to believe him. Sure, speaker...you keep telling yourself that you've moved on. He's desperate to believe that he has escaped Her, but he can't stop thinking about the place he has left--his whole being is wrapped up in Florida. The speaker is styling himself as the Stanza 1 snake who has "shed its skin upon the floor," leaving behind a trace of himself while escaping into a new life, but what is he actually escaping from and what is he running toward?

It's interesting that Florida and all things related to Her sound rather pretty and pleasant. Stanza 2 has gorgeous descriptors like "Her South of pine and coral and coraline sea" and "her home...in the ever-freshened Keys". But in with these nice snapshots, there are also hints of ugliness and death, at least from the speaker's point of view: "a sepulchral South"(making the whole area a graveyard), "the bleaching sand," and "trees likes bones". Why does he keep inserting these images of decay into a place so full of life? It could be that he was feeling the death or dissolution of his own personality. "She" seemed to totally dominate his life in Florida: "her mind had bound me round". Maybe he's trying to get out while he still has the will to move.

The place he's sailing toward certainly doesn't seem welcoming, but it is his place: "my North of cold". He's leaving a wild, natural, feminine place for a regimented, civilized, male place: "My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime/ Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds". He's thrilled to be going to this slimy place full of smoggy skies and crammed streets. What's up with that? What is it about either his relationship with the insidious She or his relationship with Florida itself that makes him hate the pools and "vivid blooms" and want to exchange them for the city? I'm not quite sure, but it looks like something was seriously dysfunctional about his time in Florida, and something even more concerning about his longing to return to the wintry slime and the "violent mind" of the guys back home in the North.

The complex emotions and motivations in this poem are very attention-grabbing, but the words and sounds are equally intriguing. There's something purely delightful about the steady rhythm in the first lines: "Go on, high ship, since now, upon the shore,/ The snake has left its skin upon the floor". The beat of the syllables emphasizes his steady progress away from Florida. You can envision the ship sailing with the "silvers and greens spread over the sea" and the fading shore, sunken "under massive clouds". Stevens paints a few scenery pictures and then goes off into the inner turmoil of the speaker, and both are beautifully done. Check out some Wallace Stevens when you have a chance!

Scripture Sunday: The Second Book of Chronicles

In 2nd Chronicles we're seeing an emphasis on the sub-kingdom of Judah, with an especial emphasis on the temple of God. The book starts with Solomon's ascension to the throne of Israel. God gives him tremendous wisdom and Solomon also possesses and distributes so much wealth that he "made silver and gold in Jerusalem as plenteous as stones, and cedar trees made he as the sycamore trees that are in the vale for abundance" (1:15). In his day, abundant silver and cedar was like having diamond-studded swimming pools--Solomon's country was seriously rich. And one of the big thing Solomon decides to do with this God-given wherewithal is to build a temple as a permanent house of worship for him.

Chapters 2 through 6 are all about building the temple, and we see why the temple is such a big deal. God pays special attention to prayers said in the temple, but beyond that, the temple is a place where the people can focus their attention when they need to repent of their sins. God says in 7: 14-15 "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now mine eyes shall be open, and mine ears attent unto the prayer that is made in this place." Notice though, that just praying in the temple isn't enough to get God's forgiveness--his people have to give up the evil things they do and then they can be forgiven. Actively seeking the Lord is a key part of this whole deal.

Chapters 8 and 9 talk more about Solomon's accomplishments and the visit he received from the Queen of Sheba. And it's interesting that 2nd Chronicles completely glosses over Solomon's downfall into idolatry by worshipping with his wives--1st Kings chapter 11 tells the uglier side of the Solomon story. Again, I'm stuck by how much brighter the books of Chronicles are than the books of Kings. They're both true versions of the Israelite history, but Kings more accurately shows the destructiveness of sin, and Chronicles emphasizes the blessings that come from holiness. They're two sides to the same coin, and it's really helpful to look at both.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Poetry Review: "Byzantium" by William Butler Yeats

This eerie poem establishes a lot of disturbing imagery within it's five 8-line stanzas. It was written after Yeats' famous poem "Sailing to Byzantium" and seems to be like a sequel to that poem. But the easiest thing to say about "Byzantium" is that if it's a continuation of "Sailing" (and I believe it is), things have gone horribly, horribly wrong. You can read my discussion of "Sailing to Byzantium" HERE.

Here's the text of "Byzantium", and afterwards I'll see if I can do a little analysis/explication of it.

"THE unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea."

This is pretty much a wildly disorienting poem. If the speaker for the two Byzantium poems is the same, the question is, how did we get from “sages standing in God's holy fire” in the first poem to a courtyard filled with “blood-begotten spirits” in the second? It looks like the speaker reached Byzantium and found it vastly different than he'd imagined. He isn't redeemed from old age; he's transformed into a bodiless observer of the weird happenings in the city. He is passive and entranced by the arcane energy around him.

The speaker isn't having much of an impact on his world and he's not introducing any order to it. There's very little order, period--the Emperor of Byzantium never physically appears, and his agents are less than imposing (“the Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed,” line 2). Who is ruling the roost in this world? The "shade," the“blood-begotten spirits”, or maybe the golden bird in stanza 3?
In "Sailing," the bird was the speaker's ideal self: a beautiful and permanent piece of interactive art that could predict the future. But now the bird is immobile on its perch and shows a disdain, bordering on hatred, for living things, those "complexities of mire and blood". The speaker was once intent on leaving a sensual world filled with reveling youths who ignored the wisdom of senior citizens, but he supposed that he was leaving his young country for an eternal paradise. Though it's true that age and entropy can't intrude upon Byzantium, neither is there any possibility of growth or change.

The most disturbing aspect of this whole poem is the fact that the speaker does not even seem to notice that everything surrounding him is inescapably wrong. From what little information is given, he seems content. But although the speaker doesn't feel his own plight, the reader gets a strong sense that Byzantium is a place where individuals can be trapped by the supernatural and fall into “an agony of trance” until there is no hope and no thought of breaking free.

Or that's my take on it.

Sparknotes has a brief and totally different take on the poem HERE

Have you read it? What do you think about the poem?