The Code of the Woosters – A Novel for New Year’s Resolutions

Already feeling the post-holiday blues?  Sometimes you just need a good British comedy to help get you back into the festive spirit.  And for good British comedy, you simply can’t go wrong with P. G. Wodehouse.

The Code of the Woosters (1938) is book #7 in his Jeeves and Wooster series but, as with many of the adventures of this duo, it can be read on its own. The scene opens with Bertie Wooster, an idle man-about-town, shunning the opportunity of a Round-the-World cruise, against the counsel of his smarter but dutiful servant, Jeeves.  Wooster’s boredom disappears when his beloved Aunt Dahlia shows up, demanding he steal a silver cow creamer from collector Sir Watkyn Bassett, who, she believes, wrongfully acquired what was rightfully her husband’s.  The trouble is, Bassett is the same magistrate who Wooster had a run-in with before, not to mention the father of his dreaded sometime fiancee, Madeline Bassett.  Wooster’s friends Gussie Fink-Nottle and Stiffy Byng complicate matters with love triangles and altercations of their own, and Wooster feels bound by his family Code to help them out – “Never let a pal down.”

This was my first Wodehouse novel, though I was already familiar with the series from reading some of the short stories, as well as watching the 90s TV series.  (Apart from one or two episodes, I highly recommend that show – Hugh Laurie plays an utterly charming, if completely goofy, Bertie Wooster.)  The Code of the Woosters was therefore a plot I already recognized, but with its vibrant cast of characters, I still enjoyed reading it.

The most colorful of these characters is Roderick Spode, the amateur Dictator and leader of the Black Shorts, a fascist club. Spode, as it would happen, is secretly in love with Madeline Bassett himself, giving him further cause to despise Wooster, whose behavior he watches like a hawk.  Spode was inspired by real-life activist Oswald Mosley and poses an entertaining foil to the apolitial Wooster.

Which brings me to my list of resolutions or “life lessons” from The Code of the Woosters:

  • Set personal boundaries, or you may be called upon to steal a cow creamer.
  • Beware of ugly mustaches.  They may thinly conceal an amateur Dictator.
  • Listen to your butler.  He knows when to leave the country on a Round-the-World cruise.

2019 Christian Greats Challenge: Past & Present

Hosted by Carol at Journey and Destination

Carol at Journey and Destination is hosting a new challenge – focused on Christian literature!  Though I’ve read Christian classics on-and-off through the years, I’ve been meaning to read more, and this seems like the perfect chance! 

Here is my (overly ambitious) list:

1) A Book on Early Church History
Early Christian Doctrines by J. N. D. Kelly
My mom already has this book, so it’s an obvious choice!

2) A Book About a Prominent Christian Who Was Born Between 500 A.D & 1900
Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses by Régine Pernoud
This is one of the better-rated biographies of Joan out there.  Since childhood I’ve been fascinated by her story, but haven’t yet read anything as in-depth as this is supposed to be.

3) A Christian Allegory
The Pilgrim’s Progress (reread) by John Bunyan

4) A Book on Apologetics
Orthodoxy (reread) by G. K. Chesterton
 
5) A Philosophical Book by a Christian Author
Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings by René Descartes
I hope this counts.  I honestly know very little about Descartes, hence the desire to read him.  Backup plan: Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death.

6) A Missionary Biography or A Biography of a Prominent Christian
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

7) A Seasonal Book
TBD, but something for Lent.  I found two lists here and here that look interesting.

8) A Novel with a Christian Theme
The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin

9) A Good Old Detective or Mystery Novel
The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

10) A Substitute – choose a book by any of the authors below in place of one of the above categories:
Timothy Keller
A.W. Tozer
Patricia St. John
Jan Karon
Wendell Berry
Edith Schaeffer
Elizabeth Goudge
OR Choose a second book from a category you like
Allegory #2: The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

The Divine Comedy – Parts 2 & 3: Purgatorio and Paradiso

Previously: Part 1: Inferno

Purgatorio

And of that second kingdom will I sing
Wherein the human spirit doth purge itself,
And to ascend to heaven becometh worthy

After enduring the nine circles of Hell, Dante and Virgil finally make it out of the underworld and back to the surface of the earth.  Under a starlit sky, they watch as a boat filled with souls and captained by an angel approaches the foot of Mount Purgatory.  Dante continues on his own journey as he follows Virgil up the nine levels of the mountain.  Together, in a similar vein to their experiences in Inferno, the two travelers observe the different disciplines which souls must endure before they have been “purified” of their remaining sins and made fit to enter Paradiso.

Some readers find the second two books of The Divine Comedy to be less interesting than the first.  I actually found Purgatorio to be much more compelling than Inferno, despite my expectations and the fact I don’t personally believe in the doctrine of purgatory. I think this must be for three reasons:

  1. being glad to have finished Inferno, which was really unpleasant
  2. the variety and beauty of imagery in Purgatorio: half-celestial, half-earthly
  3. the element of hope, which is not present in Inferno

As before, Dante meets a number of real-life individuals on the mountain, while commenting upon contemporary issues in Italy.  He himself goes through purification of the seven “Ps” (peccatum = sin) as he moves from level to level.  Finally, leaving Purgatorio behind, he comes out again into the open air and finds the woman he loves – Beatrice – in a beautiful forest.

 

Paradiso

After Purgatorio, which was almost enthralling, Paradiso was a great disappointment.

Virgil, one of the condemned spirits, had to leave Dante at the end of Purgatorio, as I somewhat anticipated.  Now with his beloved Beatrice as his guide, the young poet completes his journey by ascending the nine levels of Heaven.  Along the way, he meets Biblical and Christian figures such as Solomon, St. Peter, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Venerable Bede.  The higher he climbs, the more intense become the light and worship, culminating in the dazzling pinnacle of Paradiso, where God is exalted above all.

I’m afraid Dante’s imagining of Heaven is, well, boring.  Unlike the other two places of existence, there is little scenic variety here, and the illustrator, Doré, seems to have been of the same impression – there are far fewer illustrations in this book than in the other two.  Also, Dante makes what I think is a huge writer’s mistake in inserting his real-life love interest as one of the main characters, then proceeding to portray himself as staring at her adoringly through much of the story, while she grows more and more beautiful.  It’s hard to take it seriously.

Overall

This may be philistine of me, but I honestly think The Divine Comedy is somewhat overrated.  As a work of the early 14th century, it is indisputably impressive, and I sympathize with the author to the extent that he wrote this while banished from his homeland.  But with the insertion of personal life, the commentary on Italian affairs and figures, as well as some questionable theology, there was much I could not relate to.  For me personally, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a stronger allegory of faith, not to mention more enjoyable.

Mount TBR Challenge 2019

Hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block

This is a favorite challenge of mine, all about reading books you already own.  (FWIW, I’m bolstering my list with a couple of my parents’ books.  We share with each other!)  It’s crazy, but I’m also choosing a steep challenge this year: 24 books.  Don’t know how far I’ll get, but I’m pretty excited with the list!

Here it is, in no particular order (and subject to change): 

MOUNT BLANC – 24 BOOKS

Fiction:

  1. Nostromo – Joseph Conrad
  2. The Professor – Charlotte Bronte
  3. Cancer Ward – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  4. Light in August – William Faulkner
  5. The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
  6. All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
  7. The Red and the Black – Stendhal
  8. The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  9. Moby-Dick (reread) – Herman Melville
  10. Jane Eyre (reread) – Charlotte Bronte
  11. Pilgrim’s Progress (reread) – John Bunyan
  12. ✓ The Time Machine (reread) – H. G. Wells
  13. Bonus: Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  14. Bonus: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte
  15. Bonus: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

If I read The Professor and Tenant, I will have finally read all of the Bronte sisters’ novels.  The completist in me is eager for that milestone!

Non-Fiction:

  1. The Lost City of Z – David Grann
  2. The Emperor’s Sea Eagle: A Memoir of the Attack on Pearl Harbor and the War in the Pacific – Abe Zenji
  3. Recollections of Japan – Hendrik Doeff
  4. The Boy in the Mask: The Hidden World of Lawrence of ArabiaDick Benson-Gyles
  5. To Begin the World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to BaghdadJohn Hulsman
  6. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyEric Metaxas
  7. Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age – W. Bernard Carlson
  8. AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order – Kai-Fu Lee
  9. Fear No EvilNatan Sharansky
  10. Where There Is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook – Jane Maxwell
  11. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition – Caroline Alexander
  12. Shackleton – Roland Huntford

There are a LOT of chunksters here, particularly the biographies.  We’ll see how that goes…

    The Divine Comedy – Part 1: Inferno

    Dante, lost in a dark forest, is overcome by feelings of fear and loneliness, until he is met by the spirit of Virgil, the Roman poet and author of the Aeneid.  Virgil was sent by Beatrice, Dante’s deceased childhood sweetheart, to come to his aid and help him back into the way of light and salvation.  The way back, however, starts as a downward descent into and through the nine circles of Inferno.  The journey becomes a test to Dante’s courage as he, led on by Virgil, faces the cries, tortures, and apparitions of sufferers in Hell, some of whom he recognizes.

    As I write this, Christmas is just four days away, which may be why I could not help thinking of A Christmas Carol when I read this: Virgil as a more kindly Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and Dante as a melancholy Scrooge.  However, Tolkien also came to mind, for Inferno is as terrifying a landscape as Mordor (perhaps moreso), filled with graphic portrayals of misery and torment.  Virgil then leads as a stern elf or wizard, and Dante is our hobbit.  The half-dead prisoners of Inferno are like so many Gollums – half-despicable, half-pitiable in their anguish and hatred.

    There are many, many references to contemporary and historical figures in this story, and most of them are Italian.  I chose not to read an annotated edition (feeling I would never make it through) but instead looked up names along the way when the context was insufficient.  The edition I read was the Henry Longfellow translation, with summaries of each canto by Anna Amari-Parker.  Apart from one or two confusing ones, I felt the summaries greatly helped my understanding of the text.

    To be perfectly honest, I was underwhelmed by the story itself.  While initially the trek through monsters and chasms draws you in, it seemed to grow quickly repetitive.  As he descends from circle to circle, Dante finds different groups of people being tortured in different ways; he frequently stops to talk to people he recognizes and is chastised by Virgil if he lingers too long.  Virgil, elf-like, saves him from any real danger by finding “the way out” or by flight if necessary.  And so it goes on, till they reach the last scene of despair. 

    What really made the book stand out to me were the illustrations by Gustave Doré.  In total, he created 135 wood-engraved illustrations for The Divine Comedy, which, in Inferno, average to 2-3 full illustrations per canto!  Keep in mind, Inferno contains mostly pictures of the cloaked Virgil and Dante staring at crowds of writhing, very nude figures, not a pleasant subject.  In context, however, it’s effective as an almost graphic-novel style of storytelling.  Doré also excels at atmospheric landscape and lighting, making you sometimes forget you’re looking at a wood engraving.  Not gonna lie, I preferred the illustrations over the writing.

    This one is my favorite, which I used before in my review of The Brothers Karamazov.  These are the traitors trapped in ice, and you can hardly believe what skill it takes to portray ice in wood, yet he does, brilliantly:

    Being as enamored of wood engravings as I am, I did some searching to see how it’s actually done.  I found a demo by an artist named Anne Desmet, from the Royal Academy of Arts: