Category: Great Books Group (page 1 of 4)

Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, by C.S. Lewis (fantasy)

“Haunted by the myth of Cupid and Psyche throughout his life, C.S. Lewis wrote this, his last, extraordinary novel, to retell their story through the gaze of Psyche’s sister, Orual. Disfigured and embittered, Orual loves her younger sister to a fault and suffers deeply when she is sent away to Cupid, the God of the Mountain. Psyche is forbidden to look upon the god’s face, but is persuaded by her sister to do so; she is banished for her betrayal. Orual is left alone to grow in power but never in love, to wonder at the silence of the gods. Only at the end of her life, in visions of her lost beloved sister, will she hear an answer.”


After Psyche is banished, Orual returns to her people and determines to “go always veiled.” She does this to hide her face from her people, herself, and from the gods. She also veils herself—although it’s not clear she realizes it—to mimic what she sees as the silent and inapproachable nature of the gods. As time passes, she realizes the power that the veil gives her:

Veiled Lady

Veiled Lady

From the very first . . . as soon as my face was invisible, people began to discover all manner of beauties in my voice. At first it was “deep as a man’s, but nothing in the world less mannish;” later, and until it grew cracked with age, it was the voice of a spirit, a Siren, Orpheus, what you will. And as years passed and there were fewer in the city (and none beyond it) who remembered my face, the wildest stories got about as to what that veil hid. No one believed it was anything so common as the face of an ugly woman. Some said (nearly all the younger women said) that it was frightful beyond endurance; a pig’s, bear’s, cat’s or elephant’s face. The best story was that I had no face at all; if you stripped off my veil you’d find emptiness. But another sort (there were more of the men among these) said that I wore a veil because I was of a beauty so dazzling that if I let it be seen all men in the world would ran mad; or else that Ungit was jealous of my beauty and had promised to blast me if I went bareface. The upshot of all this nonsense was that I became something very mysterious and awful. I have seen ambassadors who were brave men in battle turn white like scared children in my Pillar Room when I turned and looked at them (and they couldn’t see whether I was looking or not) and was silent. I have made the most seasoned liars turn red and blurt out the truth with the same weapon. (Part 1, Chapter 20)

This description of the people’s reaction to the veiled Orual becomes a symbol for humanity’s relationship to God, who really does veil Himself to us. When all is said and done, however, Orual is a real woman under the veil—not “a spirit, a Siren, Orpheus, or what you will.” By the same token, God is a real personage under a veil, and it doesn’t really matter what we think He is, He is what He is.

Of the things that followed I cannot at all say whether they were what men call real or what men call dream. And for all I can tell, the only difference is that what many see we call a real thing, and what only one sees we call a dream. But things that many see may have no taste or moment in them at all, and things that are shown only to one may be spears and water-spouts of truth from the very depth of truth. (Part 2, Chapter 2)

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Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Volume 1 and Volume 2, by Mark Twain (American classic)

“Regarded by many as the most luminous example of Twain’s work, this historical novel chronicles the French heroine’s life, as purportedly told by her longtime friend—Sieur Louis de Conté. A panorama of stirring scenes recount Joan’s childhood in Domremy, the story of her voices, the fight for Orleans, the splendid march to Rheims, and much more. An amazing record that disclosed Twain’s unrestrained admiration for Joan’s nobility of character, the book is matchless in its workmanship—one of Twain’s lesser-known novels that will charm and delightfully surprise his admirers and devotees.”


Joan of Arc’s fascinating holy life, combined with Mark Twain’s superb storytelling, make Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc the most compelling, uplifting novel I’ve read in a while. With this novel, Twain accomplishes what I believe is a difficult, if almost impossible, feat for an author—he makes a holy person both believable and accessible. At the other end of the spectrum, his evil characters are also just as real and believable—horrifyingly so.  Moreover, all of his characters, both fictional and historic, are unique and interesting. With his phenomenal insight into human character, Twain helped me understand how so many real people—both commoners and aristocrats—could have believed that a seventeen-year-old peasant girl had been visited by angels and called of God to deliver France from English bondage.  Continue reading

LibriVox App

Like many readers these days, I sometimes listen to audiobooks while doing other tasks.  A good source for free audiobooks in the public domain is LibriVox. You can download or stream audiobooks from the web site, or you can install an app on your phone or tablet to do the same thing.  Here is the basic description of LibriVox from its web site:

LibriVox Objective

To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.

Our Fundamental Principles

  • Librivox is a non-commercial, non-profit and ad-free project
  • Librivox donates its recordings to the public domain
  • Librivox is powered by volunteers
  • Librivox maintains a loose and open structure
  • Librivox welcomes all volunteers from across the globe, in all languages

Some books are read by multiple volunteers; others are read by only one. The more popular titles have several versions, so if you start one and aren’t crazy about the reader or readers, just keep trying until you find a version that appeals to you. For example, the novel Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen has seven versions in English.

I prefer to read books one at a time, which means that I will move back and forth between reading and listening to a book before I move on to the next book. For that reason, I rarely listen to an audiobook in its entirety. I listened to significant portions of the six audiobooks below and enjoyed them all very much.

I’ve told several people about the LibriVox app recently and have been surprised by how many readers don’t know about it.  If that describes you, check it out! With over 10,000 files in its catalog, you’re certain to find something you will enjoy.

Book Commentary from a Cowboy

The Virginian

The Virginian

In April 2015 my book group read The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains, by Owen Wister. One of the fun things about this novel is that the school teacher in the story, Molly Wood, gives books to the Virginian to read. When he returns a book to her, he gives his spirited observations about it. His remarks about Fathers and Sons and Kenilworth are so intriguing that my group added those books to our list for 2016. Some of his comments—such as those about Emma, by Jane Austen—are about books we have already read. One of his observations is about The Mill on the Floss, a George Eliot novel the group hasn’t read yet. I wanted so much to add the Virginian’s comment about The Mill on the Floss to this post that I read it on my own.

I’ll warn you right now; the Virginian’s observation about The Mill on the Floss contains a significant spoiler, so you may want to skip down a few lines to Fathers and Sons. If you’re like me, however, you may prefer to avoid tragic surprises in a book and are more likely to read it if you get a warning, so here it is, from Chapter 12: Continue reading

The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss

The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot (English classic)

“Brought up at Dorlcote Mill, Maggie Tulliver worships her brother Tom and is desperate to win the approval of her parents, but her passionate, wayward nature and her fierce intelligence bring her into constant conflict with her family. As she reaches adulthood, the clash between their expectations and her desires is painfully played out as she finds herself torn between her relationships with three very different men: her proud and stubborn brother; hunchbacked Tom Wakem, the son of her family’s worst enemy; and the charismatic but dangerous Stephen Guest.”


The Mill on the Floss used to be on my list of George Eliot novels not to read. I watched a movie version of the story years ago and thought that the ending was so random and awful that there was no way I was going to read that book! In the years that have passed, however, I’ve read and loved several novels by George Eliot and come to trust her as an author. I decided I was ready to give The Mill on the Floss a try.

Many descriptions of this book, including the one above, make Maggie sound like a rebel and perhaps even a revolutionary. The quality they miss is her simplicity and lack of sophistication. Maggie doesn’t want to be a rebel! What she lacks is the ability to suppress her natural authenticity in order to conform to the beliefs and behaviors demanded by her family and community. Her mistakes are rarely true sins against God, and yet they are regarded as unpardonable sins by many members of her family and, later in the book, by the community at large. No matter what Maggie does, it isn’t right. Continue reading

Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 3)

For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.

For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 2: The Power of Democracy), please click here.

United States Capitol

United States Capitol

Part 3: Babylon or Zion?

In the Introduction of Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville  declares that the democratic revolution of the world “possesses all the characteristics” of being “the will of God”:

Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty

In perusing the pages of our history, we shall scarcely meet with a single great event, in the lapse of seven hundred years, which has not turned to the advantage of equality. . . .

Whithersoever we turn our eyes we shall witness the same continual revolution throughout the whole of Christendom. . . .

The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress. . . .

If the men of our time were led by attentive observation and by sincere reflection to acknowledge that the gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the past and future of their history, this solitary truth would confer the sacred character of a Divine decree upon the change. To attempt to check democracy would be in that case to resist the will of God; and the nations would then be constrained to make the best of the social lot awarded to them by Providence.

Tocqueville doesn’t speculate on why this democratic revolution of the world is the “will of God.” I, on the other hand, will attempt to give an explanation. In the Bible, we learn that there will come a time when: Continue reading

Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 2)

Democracy in America Vol. 1

Democracy in America Vol. 1

Democracy in America Vol. I

Alexis de TOCQUEVILLE (1805 – 1859), translated by Henry REEVE (1813 – 1895)

When Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s he found a thriving democracy of a kind he had not seen anywhere else. Many of his insightful observations American society and political system, found in the two volume book he published after his visit, still remain surprisingly relevant today. (Summary by the Bookworm)

Genre(s): *Non-fiction, History , Philosophy

Language: English


For Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1: Introduction), please click here.

Part 2: The Power of Democracy

One of the key points that Alexis de Tocqueville makes in Democracy in America, Volume 1 is that democracy is a form of government that is extremely powerful:

Democracy does not confer the most skilful kind of government upon the people, but it produces that which the most skilful governments are frequently unable to awaken, namely, an all-pervading and restless activity, a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it, and which may, under favorable circumstances, beget the most amazing benefits. These are the true advantages of democracy. (Chapter 14, Part 2)

Tocqueville doesn’t hesitate to warn against the abuse of that “superabundant force”:

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny, and I journey onward to a land of more hopeful institutions.

In my opinion the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their overpowering strength; and I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny. (Chapter 15, Part 2)

He gives an appalling example of this sort of abuse in a footnote of Chapter 15, Part 2: Continue reading

Democracy in America, Volume 1 (Part 1)

Democracy in America, trans. H. Reeve

Democracy in America, trans. H. Reeve

Democracy in America, Volume 1, by Alexis de Toqueville, (French classic, American classic)

“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system, Democracy in America—first published in 1835—enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character. Philosopher John Stuart Mill called it ‘among the most remarkable productions of our time.’ Woodrow Wilson wrote that de Tocqueville’s ability to illuminate the actual workings of American democracy was ‘possibly without rival.’

“For today’s readers, de Tocqueville’s concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful. His shrewd observations about the ‘almost royal prerogatives’ of the president and the need for virtue in elected officials are particularly prophetic. His profound insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.

“From America’s call for a free press to its embrace of the capitalist system Democracy in America enlightens, entertains, and endures as a brilliant study of our national government and character. De Toqueville’s concern about the effect of majority rule on the rights of individuals remains deeply meaningful. His insights into the great rewards and responsibilities of democratic government are words every American needs to read, contemplate, and remember.”


Part 1: Introduction

Democracy in America is a classic that many Americans know about but few have actually read. I’m a member of a book group that exists to read this kind of material, and it took us ten years to finally be willing to take it on. The book’s length is formidable, and it’s written with such depth of observation that it requires time and thought to get through. Four members of the group made the effort to read Democracy in America. One finished the first volume and got part of the way through the second. The rest of us read the majority of the first volume with the intention of finishing it. All four of us were amazed and excited about the truth regarding America that we discerned in this book. All four of us gained a greater understanding of the origins of the United States, the things that make it great, and the underlying reasons for some of its current problems. All four of us want to put the second volume of Democracy in America on our list for next year. Continue reading

The Ladies’ Paradise

The Ladies' Paradise

The Ladies’ Paradise

The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames), by Émile Zola (French classic)

“The novel tells the story of Denise Baudu, a 20-year-old woman from Valognes who comes to Paris with her younger brothers and begins working as a saleswoman at the department store Au Bonheur des Dames. Zola describes the inner workings of the store from the employees’ perspective, including the 13-hour workdays, the substandard food and the bare lodgings for the female staff. Many of the conflicts in the novel spring from each employee’s struggle for advancement and the malicious infighting and gossip among the staff.

“Denise’s story is played against the career of Octave Mouret, the owner of Au Bonheur des Dames, whose retail innovations and store expansions threaten the existence of all the neighborhood shops.”


I found The Ladies’ Paradise to be interesting on several levels and incredibly thought-provoking. My thoughts went down a couple of different lines while reading this novel, both figurative and literal, and I’ll try to capture some of both lines in this post. The figurative one gave me a glimpse of Babylon that was unsurprisingly—yet disturbingly—modern. In this description of The Ladies’ Paradise from Chapter 9, Zola compares the department store to a church or temple:

Madame Desforges was at last reaching the first storey, when a still greater surging of the crowd forced her to stop once more. She had now, beneath her, the departments on the ground-floor, with the press of customers she had just passed through. It was a new spectacle, a sea of heads fore-shortened, concealing the bodices, swarming with a busy agitation. The white price tickets now appeared but so many thin lines, the promontory of flannels cut through the gallery like a narrow wall; whilst the carpets and the embroidered silks which decked the balustrades hung at her feet like processional banners suspended from the gallery of a church. In the distance, she could perceive the angles of the lateral galleries, as from the top of a steeple one perceives the corners of the neighbouring streets, with the black spots of the passers-by moving about. But what surprised her above all, in the fatigue of her eyes blinded by the brilliant pell-mell of colours, was, when she lowered her lids, to feel the crowd more than ever, by its dull noise like the rising tide, and by the human warmth that it exhaled. A fine dust rose from the floor, laden with the odour of woman, the odour of her linen and her bust, of her skirts and her hair, an invading, penetrating odour, which seemed to be the incense of this temple raised for the worship of her body.

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Shirley

Shirley

Shirley

Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë (English classic)

“Written at a time of social unrest, [Shirley] is set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, when economic hardship led to riots in the woollen district of Yorkshire. A mill-owner, Robert Moore, is determined to introduce new machinery despite fierce opposition from his workers; he ignores their suffering, and puts his own life at risk. Robert sees marriage to the wealthy Shirley Keeldar as the solution to his difficulties, but he loves his cousin Caroline. She suffers misery and frustration, and Shirley has her own ideas about the man she will choose to marry.”


I really wanted to like this book and began it with that intention, and by the time I finished it, I did like it—I just didn’t love it. I think the reason was because it never completely captivated me. Brontë begins the novel by describing many minor characters in detail, and I had difficulty understanding which characters the story would follow, which made it all seem rather pointless to me in the beginning. As the novel and its underlying themes unfold, it does become just as much about a community of people as it does the lead characters, which gives at least some purpose for the detailed descriptions of the secondary characters. Structurally, this novel begins with a community in turmoil and ends as that community begins to come out of the turmoil. This struggle is mirrored on an individual level with several of the characters, in particular Caroline Helstone and Robert Moore. This observation from Chapter 20 puts into words what I believe is the overall theme of the novel:

Most people have had a period or periods in their lives when they have felt thus forsaken—when, having long hoped against hope, and still seen the day of fruition deferred, their hearts have truly sickened within them. This is a terrible hour, but it is often that darkest point which precedes the rise of day—that turn of the year when the icy January wind carries over the waste at once the dirge of departing winter and the prophecy of coming spring. The perishing birds, however, cannot thus understand the blast before which they shiver; and as little can the suffering soul recognize, in the climax of its affliction, the dawn of its deliverance. Yet, let whoever grieves still cling fast to love and faith in God. God will never deceive, never finally desert him. “Whom He loveth, He chasteneth.” These words are true, and should not be forgotten.

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