Books from Abroad

I’m back from a six week tour and study trip to four different countries and, thanks to jet lag, my brain is wide awake while my body is still confused as to whether it’s time for second breakfast or a mid-morning nap.

So I will take advantage of this forced downtime to go on my regular post-travel blogging rampage. Expect more than one post within the next couple of days! To start, though, I will begin with my “Read across Europe” post.

In every city I visited, I did my best to find a bookshop. In most, I succeeded, and with an overweight suitcase, returned home with many new reads to add to my library. I tried to be thematic with my selections and ended with a nice little collection of books from abroad. They served as a second way of documenting my travels and expanding my understanding of the lands I visited, the homes of their authors.

  1. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

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Our first stop was Amsterdam, home of beautiful canals, more bikes than in all of America, a certain district we did our best to avoid, and- of course – the Anne Frank House. We toured it, but I felt that I ought to have read her book first, so I picked it up in the gift shop on the way out and was engrossed in it throughout several train rides and an international bus journey.

I ended up being glad to read the book after having been in its setting. However, I was surprised to see just how roomy the secret attic was; I remember elementary school teachers telling me with horrified tones how the hiding space was probably smaller than my bedroom, perhaps even smaller than my closet. This was no the case, as I found out. However, reading the book I was struck by the brutal honesty of its young authoress. Anne Frank was, well, frank about the too-real trials of their situation and yet she also possessed a wisdom and eloquence beyond her years. I was convicted by her ability to write with such clarity and skill in the darkest of times.

2. Poems of the Great War 

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“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow.”

From the first line, I was stuck by the poignance of these poems; they are full of yearning, mourning, and heartbreak but also hope and loyalty and courage. I picked up this little collection in Ypres after a strenuous bike ride through the surrounding farmlands, where once the poppies grew.

Although few poppies grow among the memorials of Flanders Fields now, the memories of the Great War linger. The museum and the poems in this book keep them alive, reminding, entreating us to never forget and to carry on with wisdom in light of the tragedies of the past.

This book kicked off my love of poetry, which continued to influence my reading choices throughout the rest of this trip.

3. The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory 

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This book caught my eye just as I finished exploring the castle in Edinburgh. In a city so rich in literature and history, it was a no-brainer that I needed to purchase a book. I had been hoping my something by Sir Arthur Conan Dolye or Robert Louis Stevenson or even J.K. Rowling as they all lived in Edinburgh, but this book focuses on a key point in Scottish and English history, so it worked just as well. It turns out the author got her Ph.D. in 18th century literature from Edinburgh University, which is pretty amazing if you ask me.

It was a great book for gaining insight into Mary Queen of Scots and Tudor England. Was it my favorite book? No, but it was interesting and certainly passed the time on another long train ride.

4. Underwoods by Robert Louis Stevenson

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I found this gem in a quirky bookstore in Inverness. Besides a sporting goods shop where I bought amazing running shoes, this bookstore was the only interesting thing in the city. However, Inverness is situated in the Scottish Highlands, which I strongly believe to be the most beautiful place on earth. This collection of R.L. Stevenson’s poetry is not only over one hundred years old, it smells of “ancient Egypt” and is filled with thrilling rhymes and imagery. For instance, “Wine-scented and poetic soul” (from “To a Gardener”) won me over at once.

Update: I read several more poems and am in love with R.L.S.’s ability to marry humor and earnestness within the same stanzas.

5. The Wrong Box by Robert Louis Stevenson

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After his poetry, I was on a Stevenson reading trend. In St. Andrews, a beautiful coastal town in Scotland, I found another darling bookstore, complete with ladders and books old and new. There, I picked up this “black comedy” and laughed my way through it all the way from Cambridge to Glasgow on my final train ride.

It was a pleasant way to pass a 4.5 hour journey, though Stevenson made me painfully aware of my limited vocabulary. I ended up having to scribble a list of words to look up later in my journal. Still need to do that…oops.

But, after this, I purchased a Stevenson collection on my abomination (er, I mean, my Kindle) and enjoyed finally reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, shocked that I’d never read it before and astounded at its insights into human nature.

6. Much Ado about Nothing by William Shakespeare. 

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G. David, a bookseller in Cambridge, is one of the most magical places in the world. Unfortunately for me, my wallet did not agree, so all I could afford to buy in the end was this teeny-tiny copy of Much Ado. 

We saw this comedy performed in the King’s College Fellows Garden as part of the 30th annual Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, so it seemed a fitting (and suitcase weight limit-friendly) souvenir. Besides, I think sassy Beatrice might be my literary twin and this is definitely my favorite of the comedies.

 

So there you have it! These are my souvenir books, though I also read a wealth of English and Cambridge authors’ books (on my Kindle…alas, it is so convenient for travel…)

  • Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare
    • Aside from the traumatic Globe experience, I admit that I love this play, not because I make the painful mistake of thinking it is a romance, but because I am fascinated with the way in which it is simultaneously comic and tragic in its plot. Essay on this later?
  • Sermons on Ephesians – Reverend Charles Simeon of Cambridge
    • Wonderful resource to have on hand as I studied Ephesians during my stay in Cambridge. Simeon is concise and insightful.
  • Silhouettes and Skeletons – various
    • This was a weird one and I’m not sure why it was on my reading list for my Cambridge course. It sought to give a character depiction of Simeon and sort of did, I guess… maybe.
  • An Experiment in Criticism – C.S. Lewis
    • This book was incredible and is reshaping how I approach various works of art. I already want to reread it as I know there is a wealth of ideas that I missed.
  • Letters to Malcolm – C.S. Lewis
    • Also insightful, but I wish I could have read Malcolm’s letters to Lewis…
  • Ariel – Sylvia Plath
    • At first, I was shocked and annoyed, considering Plath’s poetry to be nothing more than long and unnecessary sex and suicide metaphors. However, upon closer reading and applying the openness Lewis advises in Experiment, I found a new depth and beauty to Plath’s writing that inspired my own attempts at poetry.
  • The Art of Prophesying – William Perkins
    • This was a nice, concise guide to preaching which, naturally, my honors institute friends and I overcomplicated.
  • Samson Agonistes – John Milton
    • Do NOT make the mistake of skimming this in your head on an airplane. Instead, read it aloud with some literary friends; I promise you will find new meaning and beauty in it this way.
  • Manual of a Christian Knight – Erasmus
    • Rule No. 5 was about the only part of this book that did not make me want to give it up. Yes, it was helpful in some parts as it described our spiritual battle, but overall it was just. so. long. and. wordy. Still, when we discussed it, I – as usual- appreciated it more than before.
  • The Silver Chair – C.S. Lewis
    • This book seemed so straightforward until we discussed it…But it was a relief to read a children’s novel after so much theology.
  • Very British Problems – Rob Temple
    • This had me laughing aloud, but I think a more apt title would be “Awkward Introvert Problems” because all of the so-called “British Problems” are things I too fear.
  • Misery – Stephen King
    • Well this was equal parts inspiring and traumatizing…it’s writing and construction were brilliant and its story had me captivated for nearly all of my transatlantic flight. But now I wonder if I really want to be a famous writer as the plot centers on the kidnapping and torture of one…Still, it was my first King novel and I certainly enjoyed (is that the right word?) it!

 

Well, there you have it! My Euro-trip 2017 summed up in the books I read and purchased. Hopefully it gave you some new reads to check out in the future and maybe some new literary destinations to visit.

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Tyndale 

I had the joy of visiting Tyndale House yesterday and meander through its enchanting library. I could feel the words of the ages trickling down from its shelves as rain pattered outside. It was like walking into a poem! So, naturally, this happened: 

No clock ticks 

   for time has ceased

   and yet means everything;

It’s flowers faded

   now pressed, relics-

   of logos labyrinth. 

Beyond, the rain

   lost moments counts,

   but here the very air

       -dusty-

   holds its breath,

   and slow, exhales,

   dead ages still alive. 

Romeo and Juliet at the Globe 2017: A Review

 

Last night I had the opportunity to attend Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre in London. Having read it not long ago, I arrived expecting heartrending professions of love, stately background characters, comic relief now and then, and period costumes. I also half expected to fall asleep as it has been a long week of traveling and I have seen various similar versions of RJ since my birth (the daughter of an English teacher, I likely was hearing it read aloud before I was even born.)

Well, I certainly was in no danger of falling asleep and was in fact on the edge of my seat for the entire production, from its disturbing opening in which two clownish figures representing Ladies Montague and Capulet gave birth to coffins to its sexually-charged dance scene (also featuring the Shakespearean equivalent of the Village People singing YMCA) to its gruesome ending in which, rather than uniting the two households, Romeo shouts “bang” as he pantomimes killing everyone.

Shocking is perhaps the most mild word to describe this production. Others had called it “rubbish” or, less gently, “poop.” But although it ruffled my moral feathers and baffled my literary mind, I cannot dismiss it so easily as a piece of mere modern, avant garde trash. Was it likely crafted with the intent of upsetting Shakespearean purists? Yes. But was there no value at all in seeing it? That stands to be decided.

When it comes to anything that even vaguely might be considered art, I am of the firm opinion that it must be evaluated according to the triangular concept of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. I say “triangular” to indicate that these three abstracts cannot be separated from each other without severely degrading themselves as individuals and thus the work of art in question. (i.e., a beautiful painting that does not inspire contemplation of truth or practical goodness, is beautiful in itself but lacking in ultimate and lasting impact, thus making it a lesser work of art. But that is another blog post- or perhaps thesis- in itself.)

In discussing the play afterwards with the brave souls who stuck it out, we thoroughly examined its every aspect according to these three ideals, which happen to comprise the motto of our honors institute.

The Beautiful: 

First and perhaps easiest, was this production beautiful? Regardless of personal taste, was this a well-crafted show? Were the costumes done with excellence? Was the staging effective? How were other art forms incorporated? Was the acting convincing? Did it authentically communicate the original text?

Overall, yes, I would say there was a great deal of beauty within this production. Was I a fan of the male stripper character who showed up just in time for an odd dance party scene? Not particularly. Not at all, actually. Did I understand why ballistic missiles were hung above the stage without any explanation? No.

However, the costumes (besides Speedo-pasty guy) were done with a great attention to detail. While the entire cast besides Romeo and Juliet were dressed in harlequin attire to match their ribald and careless personalities, the young couple were dressed in an elegant and simple suit and dress, complete with foreboding and fitting Mexican death masks. This was a beautiful choice for it highlighted that amidst a chaotic and pointless world, serious love might might still bloom, albeit for a short time.

Similarly, the staging was magnificent. Scenes such as the death of Tybalt and the anticipation of the newlywed Juliet upon her bed were layered to show the intricate weaving of death and life which characterize this play, no matter the version. I grant that the staging of nearly every scene (I can never forget the YMCA dance party disaster) was stunning.

Other arts such as music were also incorporated, featuring the stellar vocals of the Mercutio. The song itself was cheesy, but it did serve well to enhance the drama of the ending and tug at the audience’s heartstrings. Well done. Still, I have to take some points off for the other main song being YMCA sung by a rowdy Lord Capulet dressed in a dinosaur costume.

The acting was convincing. That much was clear to everyone. While I do not necessarily like the way certain characters were portrayed, such as Friar Laurence who seemed crafted specifically to mock all religion, they did well in their assigned roles. The stand-outs were certainly Juliet, whose intentionality shown in every phrase, Romeo, who was simply adorable, and Mercutio, who was disturbingly impactful.

As far as communicating the original text…I could rant forever about how the ending was cut so that no reconciliation was truly reached and thus the near-comedy ending of the original was tossed carelessly away. But I will restrain myself…for now. The original was most clearly expressed in the scenes between Romeo and Juliet themselves; these sweet, intimate moments were a refreshing contrast from the raunchy update of the rest of the play. I would like to believe that this tension between the loud pursuits of the majority and the confused love of young people is true to what Shakespeare must have intended.

Oh, and let’s not forget the double entendres. Every single one (and then some) that Shakespeare wrote was emphasized as a crude joke. So there’s that.

Beautiful? In many ways, if surprising in light of my initial shock and disgust, yes.

The True: 

Did this production effectively communicate a message of truth? Was this message what Shakespeare would have intended? Did the audience leave with new ideas and questions worth pursuing? Did it lend itself to discussion and a greater understanding of any concept? Did it speak to any realities that need addressing?

These questions were the most troubling. While my mind has come up with multiple messages that could have been communicated by this production, I cannot settle on any one in particular. To me, this is a fault of the direction. With Shakespeare, there are so many themes worth highlighting that choosing one to focus on should not be a difficult feat. However, this production was so scattered that it was impossible to truly know what it was attempting to convey.

I hypothesized that it was highlighting the idea that genuine love between a young man and woman is doomed to die in light of a sexually-charged, consequence-free society. Others speculated that it meant that this love was worth dying for in the light of cheap physical pleasure. One friend brought up nihilism. Another thought it was a statement in favor LGBT living while still another thought it was an argument against this. Some thought perhaps it was to promote feminism or unveil abusive parental relationships. Theories were wide-ranging to say the least.

While I value ambiguity in art for the purpose of leading to discussion, I still find it immensely troubling when a piece has so many messages that it ultimately has none. This version of RJ was so varied in its potential messages that I fear it ended up saying nothing. Any truth discovered by viewing this was only achieved after hours of speculative conversation rather than simply individual contemplation of the work itself. Thus, in touching on so many different potential messages, I believe it failed in communicating fully a single truth of any kind.

In its defense, it lent itself well to discussion, but I am afraid this is more because it was a scandalous spectacle than a work of true philosophy. Any truth discovered was achieved through our own mental efforts to understand something, anything of what we just watched rather than through the production itself.

True? Nada. Discussion and thought-provoking due to utter confusion? Yes. I suppose that is a small point in its favor.

The Good: 

Did this production highlight good, even if doing so by portraying darkness? Did this play have the effect of catharsis, portraying wrong and death so that we might purge our inclinations/emotions and live rightly instead? Or, rather, did it draw us into its moral degeneracy? How did our consciouses react during and after? Was it edifying?

Romeo and Juliet is certainly not an example of how we should live; it is full of contention, deception, murder, offense, etc. However, the same could be said of a tragedy such as Macbeth. Plays such as this seek to direct audiences toward better things by demonstrating graphically the consequences of vice. However, this production fell short, for the characters who lived most wrongfully ended with the fewest consequences, perhaps deceiving less-discerning viewers into believing this makes these poor choices acceptable.

In Macbeth, the characters who commit sins end up devising their own downfalls. However, in this production, the characters who are most clearly shown to be abusive, lustful, and prideful survive while the two characters who pledge fidelity end in death. This does not redirect our hearts toward good by demonstrating evil, but rather excuses evil at the expense of good.

At first, I was disgusted by some of the things I saw on stage, as I would be in any production that features characters filled with such lust, pride, and hate. This was no different than I would likely feel watching Lady Macbeth declare that she will “unsex” herself and commit murder to achieve power. However, while I would have continued to be repelled by Lady Macbeth’s degeneracy, I become slowly more drawn in by what I was consuming in this version of RJ. This is dangerous, for rather than highlighting light by darkness, which may well have been the original intention, this production more and more pulled me into its darkness.

That said, while my mind enjoyed the challenge of analyzing and seeking some excuse for this production so that I might exalt it as art, my conscious warned during and after that it was simply not edifying.

Was this production good in the sense that it promoted contemplation of and practice of right morality? Not really. I concede that I adored the contrast between what was portrayed as real and gentle love between the married Romeo and Juliet and the unrestrained and rough lust of the other characters. However, this is the only edifying facet of the production as a whole.

Conclusion: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful…

This production was good in that it emphasized (contrary to many versions) the sanctity of the marriage of Romeo and Juliet amidst the callous affections of the other characters. However, overall it left me reeling as I sought after any other thread of morality and was, in my thoughts, instead dragged downwards into its degeneracy.

This production was true only in our own analysis and conclusions, not in its own effective communication of a reality or even an opinion. We arrived at many interesting ideas and interpretations, but it failed to convey any one clear message.

This production was beautiful in that, though stylistically opposite what I would have chosen and purposely offensive to conservative Shakespeareans, it was crafted with exceptional intentionality and detail. As an artist, I appreciated this immense care and attention to all facets of presentation.

I hold to the idea that to be a genuinely valuable work of art, something must be good, true, and beautiful in some sense. It is a performance that toes the line not only between shock-factor and authenticity but between that of good art and bad. It is up to the individual viewer to decide his or her stance on this. My own opinion? It has its virtues but its vices detract from it so much that it becomes a lesser work of art than it ought to have been had it more firmly founded upon goodness, truth, and beauty.

For more info, here is the link to the Globe Theatre’s synopsis: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre/romeo-and-juliet-2017

Kirkyard Clan

Once again, a graveyard has inspired poetry. This time, it was the historic Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. It was once the post of a loyal dog (Greyfriar’s Bobby) and now is rumored to be haunted by a malevolent poltergeist. It also features several tombstones with names that JK Rowling used as Harry Potter characters! Needless to say, it is a place overflowing with creative inspiration…and wildflowers. Enjoy! 

“Kirkyard Clan”

.

Tombstones sprout among 

and tower over you 

But you care only for 

the shady homes they strew.

.
And though graves lie beneath 

the crumbling, grassy ground,

You care not for the chill

 but joy in fertile found. 

.

That ghostly wind that blows 

can’t scare with screaming howls;

You care not for wuth’ring, 

though larger stems it bows. 

.

Though sun but rarely shines- 

even he hides his gaze-

What you care for are clouds, 

which white, reflect your face. 

.

Toil not, nor spin in strife 

for that’s a desert path. 

You care for torrent rain 

that to you is a bath. 

.

Though haunts may rumor’d be 

and others leave at night.

You care for quiet gloom 

that leaves you to bloom bright. 

.

The daisies short still stand, 

a clan that does not care

For dark decay and death 

that withers others there.

Beginning in the End 

I visited the catacombs today just outside of the Roman metropolis. I expected it to be creepy and a morbid part of me was excited to see some skeletons and shrouds. 

However, what I ended up finding: rows upon rows of empty tombs (the bodies in the areas open to tourists have been relocated) and frescos depicting the hope of eternal life and resurrection in Christ. It was as if, through these empty tombs, I was glimpsing a preview of a future freedom from death, which, in a place built to hold dead bodies, seemed ironic. So, as usual, I wrote some poetry to help me process this idea and truly experience through expression what I saw today. 

Please read and consider the following; though free verse, I wrote with both intentionality and emotion. 

“Beginning in the End”

Dark and cold and lonely,

Left in the grave- untimely. 

Memories dancing before eyes

Blinded to the present,

Blurred in remembrance. 

Had she ever seen at all?

Not many years:

Ten and seven

Yet few images felt recent, felt real. 

But now, though, was surely real;

This cold and dark and lonely. 

Shivering spine on harsh-hewn stone;

Shroud too thin a shawl,

The damp came next, trickled down

Baptism, immersing all. 

By this her soul was stirred

In that dark and cold and lonely. 

Something moved divinely 

And a prayer fell up from under. 

A prayer said at bedtimes past,

And sweeter now in this last. 

The words lifted her, warmed her. 

Their promise burned within her heart…

Her stilled heart. 

No longer beating with blood but hope. 

Then died the cold and dark and lonely

As she fell asleep, finally.

Yet sight renewed in bursting light

All-consuming, ever-bright.

A shock of air she’d felt before…

Not many years ago. 

Yet this was something far, far more.

No cold nor dark nor lonely

But glorious radiance only;

For a Christian tomb proves but a womb, 

And death as life’s true dawning. 

To the Hermitage of St. Francis

img_1144I’ve been abroad in Rome for the past ten days, but today I was- to the relief of my introversion- able to escape to the countryside of Assisi. There, I hiked to the Hermitage of St. Francis and every step of the way thought, “This is the most beautiful sight…wait, no. THIS is!” It was truly stunning and I was in awe of the Creator the entire pilgrimage.

Upon reaching the top, it was clear to me why St. Francis would choose to worship privately up there rather than only down below. Sure, I have toured some majestic and elaborate basilicas/churches over the past week or so, but none of them had the same awe-inspiring, spiritually-renewing effect on me that this hermitage and its miraculous view of nature did.

So, here is a little poem I composed on the march back down in accordance with this idea:

“No gold to have but sun will do,
And snow shall marble be.
The rocks shall serve as stair-step pew;
For columns we have trees.

The air is chill from wind- not dark
And tombs can flowers grow.
Above the sky’s a painted arc
From which His blessings flow.

This boundless house is Nature’s church
For worship, wonder, prayer.
Climb to that good and peaceful perch
To praise the Savior there.”
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