Friday, January 28, 2011

Top shelf, Selection Seven--The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael

I don't know why, but I have a fascination with monks, especially Medieval ones. This fascination might have begun during my visits to old monasteries when I lived in France for sixteen months.  Or it might have happened when I visited a real, working monastery and caught a glimpse at their ordered lifestyle. 

I also love a good mystery. I read through all 40-something Nancy Drew books when I was in third and fourth grades and worked my way through the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins and on up to Agatha Christie by the time I graduated from high school.

My idea of a perfect read, then, would combine both monks and mystery. What a happy surprise the day I discovered that such a combination existed, and not just in one book, but a whole series of twenty.

In the The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peters brings to life the medieval world of Shrewsbury, England and populates it with real and interesting people. Brother Cadfael is a monk, but he's also an herbalist, a former crusader, and what some call a busybody. Cadfael's real passion is seeing the innocent go free, even if that means a bit of trickery on his part. He's very devout, though, and has insights about God's doings that are, in a word, profound. 

I love these books. I also love the PBS Mystery adaptations starring Derek Jacobi. He is Brother Cafael, down to the rolling barrel walk.

Ellis Peters passed away shortly after the publication of the twentieth book in the series, Brother Cadfael's Penance, my favorite of them all. May she rest in peace and may the publisher bring these books back to print.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Top Shelf, Selection Six--Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince)

I love words. I love putting them together in what I hope are pleasing ways. I love searching for the perfect, sometimes unusual, word or phrase to describe a thing. But here I find myself stumped. It's nearly impossible to describe The Little Prince. Yes, it's the story of a little prince from another planet, an asteroid to be exact. And yes, he needs a sheep to guard his most precious possession. But to summarize it that way makes it sound strange. If I say, though, that my copy of this book is nearly as underlined and as marked up as my scriptures, I risk labeling it as preachy, which it's not.

So here, in a rush, are a few words I associate with The Little Prince. It's funny and sweet and sad and tender and terrible, all at once. To fully appreciate it you have to ignore the impossibility of the story and read it as the Little Prince himself would--with your heart.

I've only read this book in French, so I can't vouch for the English translation, but one is available. If you find it lacking, though, learn French--if only for the pleasure of reading Le Petit Prince.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Top Shelf, Selection Five--The Chronicles of Narnia

As a kid, I was fascinated with the idea of passing through a doorway into another world. One of those passages was in my grandma's attic. The floorboards didn't extend all the way to the eaves. They stopped three or four feet short, forming a kind of island, beyond which there were only beams and dust covered insulation. Don't step off the floorboards, my cousins and I were warned. And I always wondered what would happen if I did. Logic said that I would go crashing through and end up in a dusty heap on the floor below. But I was not a logical kid. I thought that stepping off would send me into another place, one called "Fay," because that word had been burned into the wood above the attic stairs. Fortunately, I never got brave enough to test the idea. But maybe bravery wasn't the issue. It might have been that I discovered my grandpa had a brother named Fay.

Reading C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia is a much safer way to visit another world. I should know.  I've been there often. I love Lewis's Narnia. It's very much like I imagined the world beyond grandma's attic to be, and even better. I love the characters Narnia is peopled with, too. Puddleglum, with his grim view of life, is one of my favorites. As is Mrs. Beaver, the compulsive worrier, because she's something like me.

I also appreciate the Christian symbolism. I know that not everyone does, but I think it's the reason I keep going back to Narnia as an adult. I enjoy finding hidden truths in what I read. And sometimes, truths are hidden in plain sight. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Top Shelf, Selection Four--The Dark is Rising sequence

I've long been a lover of Arthurian legend, so when I read Susan Cooper's  The Dark is RisingI was captivated. Cooper's books don't retell the legends, though. She brings Merlin into modern day and adds depth and color to the story with a variety of Welsh myth that isn't usually equated with Arthur. She's also brought some closure to the old legends that I love. For me it has become part of Arthur's story.    

Arthur is just a side character, though, and his appearance in this sequence of books is brief. The real main character is Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son. On his 11th birthday, Will is informed that he's one of the "Old Ones." Will and the reader discover just what that means through the course of the books as Will struggles against the rising of the Dark.

Cooper masterfully creates such a strong atmosphere of menance and impending doom that the reader really does feel the rising of the Dark. She does this with simple images like large black birds called rooks and snow, too much snow. . . falling . . .suffocating.

I suppose it's Susan Cooper's fault that I get nervous walking by a flock of crows. And if ever one of them eyes me,  I'm gone. And yet, I still return to the books where the rooks await.

No, I did not see the movie. When I saw the trailer with a Will who was clearly older than eleven, speaking with an American accent, I wrote it off as a bad job. But don't take my word for it.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Top Shelf, Selection Three--The Lord of the Rings

I was in seventh grade the first time I read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. As soon as I finished, I started all over again, the only time in my life I've done such a thing. I loved Tolkien's world so much that I wasn't yet ready to leave it. It was escape, and who couldn't use a little escape when you're a peonic seventh grader in a 7th-12th high school?

I felt like a geek. The Lord of the Rings wasn't popular back then (I won't say when), and girls, especially, didn't admit to reading it. So I kept my love to myself, and quietly and regularly made my escape into those pages.

The story is well known now. Peter Jackson did a beautiful job of bringing the world to the screen. But there's no substitute for Tolkien's lyrical language. I still take the occasional journey to Middle Earth by way of the page. Perhaps it's still a geeky thing to do. But I'm finally ready to stand up and proclaim my geekiness to the world.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Top Shelf, Selection Two--The Giver

Before The Hunger Games, before The Maze Runner, or Matched, there was Lois Lowry's The Giver, the gold standard, in my opinion, for dystopian fiction. Although I love all three of those recent entries in that genre--and will probably talk about each of them in later posts--they haven't quite knocked The Giver from my top shelf.

It would be nice, wouldn't it, to live in a society without hunger, pain, or crime? Imagine a society where everyone has a job and that job exactly fits each person's talents and abilities. It would be, in short, perfect. But how would you create a perfect society with imperfect people? The Giver answers that question.

I envy anyone reading The Giver for the first time. And I think the reason I read it over and over is that I'm trying to recapture the awe I felt as I walked with Jonas through that seemingly perfect society and discovered bit by bit the lengths the founders had gone to to engineer it.

The Giver is profound, but it's written in such simple, beautiful prose that you can skim along the surface and just enjoy it for the gripping story that it is. The Newberry committee was right on when they chose this book as a winner.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Top Shelf, Selection One--The Bronze Bow

The Bronze Bow is one of the books on my top shelf that takes me somewhere. It transports me to Israel at the time of Christ, which is why I read it once a year, around Christmas time. Elizabeth George Speare's descriptive language is so deliciously done, you can almost smell the scent of roasting fish and hear the lapping waters of the Sea of Galilee as the crowd gathers there to hear Christ speak.

The descriptive passages alone might be enough to bring me back to this book again and again. But it's the story that lingers in my mind long after I've turned the last page.

18-year-old Daniel, a blacksmith, hates the Romans who occupy his land. He not only hates them, he's vowed to repay them for the deaths of his parents. But there's one thing that stands in his way--his waif of sister. How can he pursue vengeance when he's charged with her care?

Love and hate are at war in Daniel's heart. And that person, that Jesus, only serves to confuse the issue. Isn't a vow sacred? he asks Jesus. Daniel feels that Jesus could--if he would--chase the cursed Romans from their land. So why won't he?

Love or hate. Daniel has to decide. And that's untimately what this book is about--choice. Through this book, I've come to realize that there will never be so many evidences from God that we are forced to believe in Him. There will always be an element of choice in our faith.

The Bronze Bow is a stirring story, beautifully written, and well deserving of its 1962 Newberry Medal.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Intro to My Top Shelf

So many books to read, so little time.
Time is such a valuable thing that when I begin a book, I hope it's worth the investment. Usually a book is. I'm not a picky reader. Okay, maybe I am, just a little. But I can forgive a lot of writing flaws if someone will tell me a good story.
The books on my top shelf are all good stories. But they're much more than that. They're books I invest my time in over and over again because, for me, the return is so great. They might take me to place I love, one I want to return to like a favorite vacation spot. Or they have a voice that I love, and reading them is like spending an afternoon with a friend. Or they've taught me something and I need to be reminded.
I'm going to try to limit my top shelf to ten books (or series of books). But I wouldn't say these are the ten best books I've ever read. Just ones that are well used.
So in no specific order, here come the ten books on my top shelf.