Friday, March 6, 2009

Without Reservations. . .mostly

I like travel literature. I think this is because I like to dream, and I like to dream of beautiful places and beautiful experiences, and when I can't actually be the one making those dreams come true, I like to live vicariously.

Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach made it's way onto my shelf at the end of last summer, when I had just come into my own, as it were. I had recently been able to close the final doors on a period that had been rather more painful than most, and I felt like I had come to a new beginning. Life was once more interesting and at times, even exciting. I had begun to formulate plans for a bright future, and so I was in the mood for reading something that reflected that newfound sense of simultaneous peace and expectation.

Without Reservations appealed to me right from the start. When I pulled it out from amongst its companions at Borders, the cover instantly delighted with its picture of a woman in a hat standing on a flower-bedecked balcony attached to a lovely old European building. Opening to the first page, I was immediately drawn in by the warmth of the writing and evocative descriptions:

"I write this sitting in my cozy kitchen on a wintry morning, my old cat dozing beside me on the warm, hissing radiator. An ice storm passed through Baltimore last night, and I can hear the evergreen trees outside my window creaking under the weight of their glazed branches."

And when I turned the page, I found that what this author wrote really resonated with me in my current state of adult infancy.

"In many ways, I was an independent woman. For years I'd made my own choices, paid my own bills, shoveled my own snow. . . . But lately, I'd come to see that no matter how much I was in charge of my finances and my time, I was quite dependent in another way. Over the years I had fallen into the habit. . .of defining myself in terms of who I was to other people and what they expected of me."

This woman had lost her sense of self, and so had I. Like me, she had been making her decisions based on what she knew or thought she knew others expected of her, without reference to her own needs, wishes, or even to what was right. Like me, she had one day woken up and realized that that was silly, and that there were better things to do with life, and so she determined to do something about it, and for my part, I decided I wanted to read about it. So I bought the book, and over these past few months have enjoyed every single moment of my vicarious experience living and traveling in Europe, and watching another woman learn who she is, and what matters in lfe.

Now, at first glance, this might sound like just another tale of empowerment for women, but it is so much more than that. It is a beautiful tribute to some of the world's most wonderful places, such as Paris, Oxford, and Venice, a heartfelt tale of friendship with humanity, with the world, and with oneself, and a repository of insights into the human condition that are by turns witty and poignant.

For instance, her first night in Paris the author decided that "first impressions about hotel rooms are like first loves: neither is based on the concept of how, over time, one can come to appreciate the pleasures of durability over infatuation." Or that same evening, when she stops to think "What if more of life could be. . .like the last slow dance, where, to echo T.S. Eliot, a lifetime burns in every moment."

The style of writing is not especially wordy; the descriptions are not Victorian in length. There is a slight sparseness that relieves the mind of clutter, rather than draining it of feeling. What emerges is a piquancy and effervescence both striking and engaging. "Across the street in the Tuileries I could hear the wind moving through the trees; it made a rustling sound, like that of a woman waltzing in a taffeta dress." Each place has a personality, and sometimes this is made startlingly clear: "If Amalfi were a man, I thought, he'd be dressed by Calvin Klein and reading Tom Clancy. Positano would wear Armani and carry a book by John Le Carre. But if Ravello were a man--ah Ravello!--he would be in chinos and a fresh white oxford shirt with no tie, buried in a book by Graham Greene."

Occasionally, the author takes a moment longer to rest upon an image, as in Perugia: "Through the window I saw the light of dawn rising, a curtain lifting to reveal the day. I opened the shutters and stood looking out for a few minutes before gazing down into the treetops below my room. There, nesting in the upper branches, were dozens of birds. It was an odd perspective, looking down into the nests of birds instead of up. . . Then, as if some secret signal compelled them, they suddenly rose into the air, a graceful white-and-gray squadron. As they lifted off, the branches beneath them swayed slightly and the leaves shivered. The small sound reverberated in the air like a tuning fork as it nears the end of its vibrations."

How truly lovely!

But yes, I titled this post "Without Reservations. . . mostly." At heart, there is something missing, and that of course, as is sadly to be expected in most contemporary writing, is the sense of the religious, the recognition that fundamentally, there is a God, and He has written the story of eternity, in which story each one of us has a unique and meaningful part which tends to a meaningful end. And so in conjunction with this, the author sometimes comes to insufficient conclusions. At other times she finds herself doing things which she doesn't recognize are in any way wrong--fortunately, this is a rare occurrence.

That having been said, I do recommend this book. It isn't a Dickens, and it's not an Austen, but it is lovely. And if you want something light and pleasant that might just surprise you now and again with a little artistry or wisdom, try Without Reservations.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pride and Prejudice Again

On any given day, I will certainly recommend reading Jane Austen. She is a perennial favorite with a masterful command of the English language, a biting wit that produced the most delightful social commentary, and a deeply penetrating insight into human nature. Her novels paint rich portraits of intricate characters set against a backdrop of deep moral beliefs in the context of an historical era that has proven itself perpetually intriguing to the modern mind.

I think, however, that of all Jane Austen's talented works, I must particularly recommend the dearly beloved Pride and Prejudice to readers of this blog. Why would I recommend a Jane Austen novel that is already so well-known? Quite frankly, because it is a masterpiece, her masterpiece. Of course, you might remind me, "Isn't it true, however, that Mansfield Park was the novel that conveyed the most thoroughly developed and complete expression of Jane Austen's world view and ethical system? Isn't Mansfield Park her most mature novel?" Well, yes, that is true. I believe most critics would agree that that is so. Nonetheless, I maintain that Pride and Prejudice is in fact Jane Austen's true masterpiece.

The reason I say this is because artistically speaking, Pride and Prejudice is without doubt the most perfect offering of Austen's pen. It contains some of the most beautifully composed English prose ever written; the turn of her phrase, the elegance of her expression are remarkable. It literally and literarily sparkles in a manner never so fully achieved by the rest of her novels, while it also never forsakes that underlying seriousness of intent so crucial to Austen's effect. At no point does the plot really begin to stick or drag; it maintains momentum and interest because of its unfailingly vivacious dialogue, and its strategically timed developments. Austen, herself, seemed to prefer Pride and Prejudice to the rest of her work, calling the novel "my own darling child," and referring to it in terms of endearment at numerous points throughout her life.

Of course, as with all of Austen's work, at its most basic level, Pride and Prejudice is about marriage, but again, Pride and Prejudice conveys its message in a particularly joyful and delightful manner. With gentleness and grace but without compromise, the novel asserts the necessity of virtue in a good relationship, and shows that a good relationship, a good marriage, is built upon a mutual striving for virtue in which both parties assist each other to achieve that virtue. All the characters are flawed, but those who emerge with the strongest relationship (Elizabeth and Darcy) are those who seek to overcome their vices, who possess the honesty to recognize when criticism is merited, who accept criticism from those they love most, who courageously take steps toward self-purging, and who constantly seek to become more worthy of being loved. Even Jane and Bingley, who seem to be presented as the perfect couple, do not possess nearly the depth or richness of love and understanding in their relationship as is had by Elizabeth and Darcy. In the end, you know that Austen favors the latter couple, as in fact she herself mentioned upon more than one occasion.

All this having been said by way of introduction, I suppose it ought to be mentioned that I am once again happily engaged in reading my favorite novel. I am particularly pleased to have discovered a brand new edition called The Annotated Pride and Prejudice, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard, whom I have found to be very sound in his analysis. This edition is probably not meant for first-time readers, as its notes are capacious, but for second-time, third-time, and every-other-time readers, it is absolutely delightful. The historical and social comments from Mr. Shapard gain you a whole new level of understanding and appreciation for the events in the story, and his literary comments draw out all sorts of intricacies and subtleties of Jane Austen's thought and writing process that all too easily escape one's notice. The end result is such a rich experience of Regency life and Austen insight that your mind just begs for more. I hope that Mr. Shapard will find time to annotate and edit the rest of Jane Austen's work.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Death Comes for the Archbishop

What can't one say about this book? It is a rich tapestry of real characters, lyric description, history retold, vivid scenery, and poetic feeling. There is much of vice and more of virtue, Catholic mystery reforming pagan superstition, the juxtaposition of widely variant cultures, and the telling of deeply personal stories of love, loss, growth, and reward. It is a journey of faith and a lesson in creation, full of the expanse and primeval vigor only found in the American West.

Immediately striking to one's senses is the beautiful writing of this novel. Cather wields her pen as a painter would a brush upon canvas. Her prose calls forth powerful scenes with rich and lovely color. She describes the rugged beauty of the West with a clarity and brillance few others have ever achieved.

"Ever afterward the Bishop remembered his first ride to Acoma as his introduction to the mesa country. One thing which struck him at once was that every mesa was duplicated by a cloud mesa, like a reflection, which lay motionless above it or moved slowly up from behind it. These cloud formations seemed to be always there, however hot and blue the sky. Sometimes they were flat terraces, ledges of vapour; sometimes they were dome-shaped, or fantastic, like the tops of silvery pagodas, rising one above another, as if an oriental city lay directly behind the rock. The great tables of granite set down in an empty plain were inconceivable without their attendant clouds, which were a part of them, as the smoke is part of the censer, or the foam of the wave.
Coming along the Santa Fe trail, in the vast plains of Kansas, Father Latour had found the sky more a desert than the land; a hard, empty blue, very monotonous to the eyes of a Frenchman. But west of the Pecos all that changed; here there was always activity overhead, clouds forming and moving all day long. Whether they were dark and full of violence, or soft and white with luxurious idleness, they powerfully affected the world beneath them. The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually re-formed and re-coloured by the cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, this ever-varying distribution of light."

Perhaps the most inspiring element in this book, however, is its portrayal of the depth of affection capable in the human heart. I have rarely encountered a tale of friendship as moving as that found in this beautifully depicted history of the diocese of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Two priests of profoundly different personality but equally brilliant sanctity make their way from France to the deserts of the American West by way of the settlements in Ohio. Along the way, they share triumphs as well as trials inifinitely more numerous which bind them ever closer in spiritual brotherhood and purity of affection, the like of which is expected only of Heaven. The weakness of one is counteracted by the strength of the other. The insight of the first is supported by the energy of the second. The boldness of the latter is tempered with the gentility of the former. Each has saved the other from disaster. Each would sacrifice his life for the other. Each becomes the Light that illuminates Christ's truth for the other.
And yet, in the end, God calls them to a sacrifice of this friendship, separating them for their final and perhaps most successful days. The calling is quietly accepted and followed, though not always understood. The two men go their separate ways, carrying the Gospel to ever more widely varying groups of people until such time as they are reunited in the eternal love of God in heaven. On his deathbed, the first bishop of Santa Fe returns to a "tip-tilted green field among his native mountains" where he tries "to give consolation to a young man who was being torn in two before his eyes. . .to forge a new Will in that devout and exhausted priest," in final witness to the two most important things he had ever had in life--God and his friend.