Wednesday, October 20, 2021

A Word for Wednesday

 "A man who's not completely honest can keep within the bounds of decency 
if he's lucky enough to be unattractive and of slender means. 
But add money and good looks, and the road to ruin is clearly signposted."

~from The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera~

Monday, October 18, 2021

Let's Bust a Recap : Old Tippecanoe

Oh you guys. I've finally finished Old Tippecanoe by Freeman Cleaves, and let me just tell you: it was not the best of times. While I can't in good conscience say this is the worst presidential biography I've read (Lynne Cheney's biography on Madison and Harlow Giles Unger's biography on Monroe were pretty awful), this one was just not good. My expectations for presidential bios have been completely upended so far this year. I was dreading Martin Van Buren and then it turned out to be a pretty easy read, and I was looking forward to Old Tippecanoe and it turned out to be a slog. 

Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time by Freeman Cleaves was originally published in 1939 and is the oldest presidential biography I've read to date by a solid 45 years (which may have something to do with how hard it was for me to stay interested?). There really aren't very many options for a full-scale biography of our nation's ninth president so I was kindof stuck with this one. 

William Henry Harrison was born into Virginia aristocracy (his father was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence), but after his father died when he was only eighteen leaving him nothing as the youngest of seven children, he decided to go out west looking for excitement and an opportunity to make his way in the world. And make his way he did. 

Before turning twenty, Harrison was already an officer in the army and a student of Indian affairs. By twenty-five, he had been appointed Secretary of the Northwest Territory, and by thirty he was governor of the Indiana territory. Much of what he was doing during this time was negotiating land cessions with the native tribes in the territory and trying to keep the peace between the settlers and Indians. He became a general during the War of 1812 and served a vital role during the conflict. He was a great motivator and won the respect of everyone who served with or under him. After being continuously undermined by Secretary of War John Armstrong, he retired from military service and eventually ended up going to Washington D.C. to serve in Congress mainly to clear his own name and fight for veterans' rights. He did a very brief stint as the U.S. minister to Colombia and then ended up running for president in 1836 against Van Buren (he lost) and again in 1840 (when he won). He was our nation's ninth president for a mere thirty-one days before succumbing to illness (probably pneumonia) and dying, making him the first president to die in office and the shortest-serving president in U.S. history. 

In his personal life, William Henry Harrison at the age of twenty-two eloped with Anna Tuthill Symmes after her father refused to give him permission to marry her. He ended up winning the respect of his father-in-law, and he seemed to have a good relationship with his wife. They had ten children together, nine of which grew to adulthood. Cleaves did a deplorable job of developing Harrison's personal life in this biography which was a real bummer for me. In fact, he abruptly ended his sketch of Harrison's life at his funeral. If not for a little internet research, I would never have known what became of his wife (she outlived him by twenty-three years) and I'm still left wondering if she ever even saw him again after he left home in February of 1841 to take his oath as president with the plan that she would follow in May when the weather was a bit more mild. 

William Henry Harrison seemed like a really likable man, and someone that I probably would have greatly respected. He was faithful to his wife, his first duty seemed to be to his family and he took his role as provider very seriously, he lived by a moral code, and stood by his plain values. He never got caught up in politicking and the door of his farm at North Bend was always open. He claimed he would only serve one term as president and it would have been very interesting to see what he would have done with his presidency had he lived longer. Being born in 1773, he was the last U.S. president born a British subject before the United States claimed its independence, and being 68 at the time of his inauguration, he held the distinction of being the oldest person to assume the presidency until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated at the age of 69. I wish Cleaves had done a better job of bringing him to life instead of documenting dry facts and going off on tangents about other people around Harrison. He did a terrible job of contextualizing Harrison's life, and to be very frank, the whole section around the War of 1812—arguably the most pivotal time of Harrison's life—was boring. I did learn much more about Secretary of War Armstrong. Given what I'd read about him up to this point, particularly in Madison's and Monroe's biographies, I had the idea that he was just incompetent, but Cleaves shared more in-depth detail about Armstrong since he had a lot of direct dealings with General Harrison during the war and not only was he incompetent, he was downright despicable. 

Another fun fact I learned while reading this biography is that Henry Clay was famous for his "handsome blooded jackasses and bulls" and a picture of his prize donkey—Magnum Bonum—has a place in the Library of Congress today. What does this have to do with the life of William Henry Harrison? Absolutely nothing except that Harrison asked for Clay's advice on a prematurely impotent jackass in a letter one time. But I thought it was a hilarious anecdote, particularly because I am 100% positive that Cleaves included this entirely unironically and with no intention of humor. (Also, if this doesn't give you an idea of how dry, factual, and random this biography was, I'm not sure what else to tell you.)

All in all, this biography was pretty disappointing and I wouldn't recommend it. William Henry Harrison led an interesting and exciting life and Cleaves did him no justice with this portrait. I was hoping to fit Tyler's biography in this year, too, but Old Tippecanoe took me a lot longer than anticipated and I'm not sure I'll get to Tyler before year's end. 

What was the last book to really let you down?

Friday, October 15, 2021

Let's Bust a Recap : The Awakening of Miss Prim

, The Awakening of Miss Prim. Where to begin with this quaint, old-fashioned, deeply philosophical novel? I read this book over the first two weeks of July and it filled the slot for "book recommended to you" on the bingo card I'm trying to black out this year. My sister-in-law Caroline gave this book her firm stamp of approval and then gifted it to me for Christmas last year so it was an easy choice when I was considering which book to read to fill that particular square. 

And Caroline is now seven for seven with her book recommendations—and that's just this year! (She's been gently urging me to read The Penderwicks for years and is one of the trusted friends that put in a good word for Jen Wilkin.) After finishing The Awakening of Miss Prim, I briefly considered blowing off my bingo card goal and just reading every book she's ever recommended to me (I have a few sitting on my shelves that are there based solely on her endorsement). I fell headlong into the charm of San Ireneo de Arnois and found myself wanting to pay a visit to the fictional village that Miss Prudencia Prim finds herself in after responding to an advertisement for a private librarian.   

The Awakening of Miss Prim was originally published in 2011 in Spanish as El despertar de la señorita Prim. It is the debut novel of author Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera (who is based in Madrid), and has now been translated into eleven languages (including English, obviously) and distributed in more than seventy countries. The English translation I read was translated by Sonia Soto and published in 2014. 

In this #1 international bestseller, our protagonist Prudencia Prim leaves everything behind to work as a private librarian in a remote French village that has decided to declare war on the modern world. The inhabitants of San Ireneo have a deep-rooted love for the culture of the classical era and old-world European civilizations and have banded together to protect it. They, along with Miss Prim's employer "The Man in the Wing Chair" challenge Prudencia's most firmly held convictions. 

Set against a cozy backdrop of a dusty, well-loved home library, steaming cups of tea, and inviting fireside chats, I fell in love with the story Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera lovingly crafted. My only bone to pick with it is that it ended too soon. The profound parleying between Miss Prim and The Man in the Wing Chair drew me in and stimulated me, and many of the metaphors Fenollera worked into her novel seemed reminiscent of C.S. Lewis (one of my favorite thinkers and writers). The Awakening of Miss Prim is unhurried and thought-provoking and calls out to be re-visited so the reader can absorb more of its timeless wisdom. This one gets my firm stamp of approval as well, and I highly recommend it. 

Who is your go-to friend for book recommendations? 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A Word for Wednesday

"What about fairy tales? Don't you like fairy tales?" she asked, trying to change the subject.

"We like them," said Eksi shyly. "We like them a lot."

"What's your favorite?"

"The story of the Redemption," replied her older sister simply.

Astounded, Miss Prim couldn't think how to respond. The child's strange statement showed that despite his efforts, despite his insistence and his arrogance, the Man in the Wing Chair hadn't succeeded in instilling even the most basic rudiments of the faith that was so important to him. He hadn't managed to explain the historical background of his religion. How could this be? All those morning walks to the abbey, all that reading of theology, all that ancient liturgy, all that playing at medieval jousting and what had he achieved? Four children convinced that the texts he so loved were just fairy tales.

"But Tes, it's not exactly a fairy tale. Fairy tales are stories full of fantasy and adventure; they're meant to entertain. They're not set at any specific time and aren't about real people or places."

"Oh, we know that," said the little girl. "We know it's not a normal fairy tale; it's a real fairy tale."

Miss Prim, pensive, adjusted her position on the old iron bench.

"What you mean is it's like a fairy tale, is that it?" she asked, intrigued.

"No, of course not. The Redemption is nothing like a fairy tale, Miss Prim. Fairy tales and ancient legends are like the Redemption. Haven't you ever noticed? It's like when you copy a tree from the garden on a piece of paper. The tree from the garden doesn't look like the drawing, does it? It's the drawing that's a bit, just a little bit, like the real tree."

~from The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera~

Monday, October 11, 2021

Let's Bust a Recap : None Like Him

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Proverbs 31:30

"If you had told me five years ago that I would one day write a book for Christian women that led off with a quote from Proverbs 31, I probably would have punched you in the face."

And with that opening line, I knew Jen Wilkin and I would get along just fine.

None Like Him: 10 Ways God is Different from Us (and why that's a good thing) by Jen Wilkin was published in 2016 and explores ten of the unique attributes of God. In this slim volume, she touches on God's self-existence, self-sufficiency, eternality, immutability, omnipresence, infinity, sovereignty, omniscience, omnipotence, and incomprehensibility. Seem like a lot to cover in less than 200 pages? For sure. But Wilkin by no means claims to plumb the depths of these traits. She has said that her goal in writing this book is to point women back to the majesty of God in the hopes that they will meditate on His character and realize their own limitations in light of God's limitless power. None Like Him is designed to stimulate personal reflection and at the end of each chapter, Wilkin concludes with Scripture verses to meditate on further, four application questions, and a prayer prompt. 

Jen Wilkin has really grown in popularity among Christian circles in the last few years and is a passionate advocate for Bible literacy. Several trusted friends of like faith have recommended her books to me, and while participating in a book exchange during my year on the Instagram, I ended up receiving None Like Him and In His Image, two of her books on my wishlist. Even though I was excited to add her books to my shelves, I was a little hesitant to read them. One of my friends once explained Jen Wilkin's Bible study method to me, and while it is a sound method, it seemed a little overwhelming. I had the idea that her books would be very Academic and Intellectual, and I'd have to wade through them slowly, possibly with a dictionary near by. 

But contrary to my expectations, None Like Him proved to be extremely accessible and very readable. I intentionally only read one chapter a day so that I could attempt to meditate on the character trait covered. After finishing None Like Him, I immediately added two more of Wilkin's books to my wishlist. 

This is definitely a book I will revisit in future and one I recommend. None Like Him is a great book for women who have just newly discovered their faith and ones who have been walking with God for years. I don't know if I'll get to In His Image before the end of the year, but I'm now very much looking forward to reading it soon. 

Have you read any of Jen Wilkin's books or done any of her Bible studies? Who is one of your favorite Christian authors?

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

A Word for Wednesday

"Is she all right?"

Miss Prim searched for her words before replying.

"I think so, but she seems very sad. She believes you blame her for something that happened many years ago."

The Man in the Wing Chair was silent for a moment.

"I don't. I forgave her many years ago, when I was still a boy. It's she who blames herself, but she can't see that. It's easier to project blame into the eyes of others and defend yourself against that than to find it within yourself, where there's no possible defense."

~from The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera~
"Dear Lady Disdain" by John Lavery

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

A Word for Wednesday

 "Mine honour keeps the weather of my fate:
Life every man holds dear; but the dear man
Holds honour far more precious dear than life."

~from Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare~