Book Review

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Book Review

I recently finished reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and I was asked by someone if I thought this was a good book?

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The short answer is no.  I don’t think it’s a good book.

And here’s why: Hurston sends conflicting messages about the meaning of love, marriage, and sacrifice.  She gets it all wrong, and I’ll do my best to briefly explain it below.

It might be helpful to begin with a simple definition of love, for love is not an emotion, as Hurston would have one believe.  Emotional “love” is flitting; it is changeable and passing.  Oh the agony one will find in marriage if one doesn’t understand this!  Rather, to love is to will the good of another.  It is to die to oneself.  It is selflessness.  Likely, most of you readers already know this.

Janie Crawford, the main character in Hurston’s 1937 novel, does not think of love in this way.  Rather, she wants to feel love, which is why her first marriage fails.  In fact, she simply walks away from that marriage, literally with another man, whom she then marries a day later.

In other words, Janie has become a polygamist, and not a word is said about it.  Apparently this doesn’t bother her as she steadily marches onward with this new man.  The interesting thing is, however, that she also begins to detest this new husband very quickly.  A good portion of the novel details her reluctance to help him and her lamenting the fact that he doesn’t understand her.  She doesn’t want to help him; she wants to do her own thing, and fortunately for her, he dies after a few years, leaving her with a lot of money.

What to do then?  All the men in the town are eager to marry her, as she’s beautiful and rich, but Janie senses the shallowness of this.  Within a year of her husband’s death, however, she runs off with another man, whom she marries.  This man, she claims to love deeply, even though he steals money from her, lies to her, beats her, and cheats on her.

Now, I get that Hurston may simply want to paint an accurate picture of this time period–this culture.  In fact, that would be the merit of this book.  For those who are looking to understand the conflict, thoughts, and feelings of turn-of-the-century black Americans, perhaps this would indeed be a good book.

But I can’t recommend it because there’s a blending of good and bad.  Sometimes good things are seen as bad.  For example, it would be good to help one’s spouse out regardless of one’s feelings, but Janies does not think so.  Furthermore, sometimes bad things are seen as good, such as when Janie breaks her marriage covenant.

Any book that celebrates bad things as good or good things as bad, without any redemption in the end, I can’t recommend.

Language and Beauty

Lastly, I want to address the issue of language.  This novel is written almost exclusively in a rough dialect coming from the south, which can be difficult to read.  Indeed, writing in such a manner can be a risky thing for an author, as you may limit your audience to only those who are willing to slog through it.  (If I hadn’t wanted to read this novel for a local book club, I never would have forced myself to finish it.  It wasn’t worth it.)

Then secondly, poor language becomes dangerous to those readers who may be immersed in such a culture.  It drags one down, and after hours of reading in such a way, one finds oneself thinking in these words–even speaking aloud in that language, and that language is not beautiful.  It is far from uplifting.  And there’s something to be said for beautiful, uplifting, and intelligent language.  Truly an author who has mastered the English language is a pleasure to read.  I’m thinking of Charlotte Bronte.  Each time I read something of hers, I can’t help but to marvel at her vocabulary and her ability to express so well the human heart.

Let me illustrate this with an example of a different nature.  Many modern churches are built in a “low” way, lacking what St. Thomas Aquinas requires for beauty–namely, clarity, proportion, and integrity.  Without getting into details and going directly to my point, there is a difference between worshipping in a pole barn and worshipping in a magnificent gothic cathedral.  Any child could tell you so.  One is inspiring, and one is not.

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Pole Barn, from Wikimedia Commons.
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Chartres Cathedral, from Wikimedia Commons.  Anybody see a difference between the two?

Books can be the same way.  This is why I would be very wary of a novel done completely in the style of a pole barn–rough, ugly, and utilitarian.  What message are you conveying?  It had better be clear.  Truth had better be Truth.  If one wants to show a picture of something ugly, it had better have a clear purpose.  There had better be redemption in the end.  Indeed, there are authors who have mastered writing in slang or local dialects–I’m thinking of Charles Dickens–so I know it can be done well.  But given Hurston’s confused manner of addressing such things as love, marriage, and sacrifice, I think she fails in her endeavor.

Homeschooling

The Homeschool Room

In our old home, we didn’t have a homeschool room.  Rather, I was very creative about where I placed our homeschool materials–on shelves in the living room, in kitchen cabinets, or in bedroom closets…anywhere.

And the children worked just about anywhere too.  In fact, we even had a card table set up in the basement storage room where The Eldest preferred to do her math, as it was a quiet spot.  One does get creative with limited amounts of space.

Thankfully, however, our current home has 5 bedrooms: one for my husband and me, one for the baby, one for the 3 girls, one for the 3 boys, and one for homeschooling.  Deo Gratias.

The Homeschool Room

Now, we’re trying to educate our children classically.  Just what does that mean?  If you’ve got twenty minutes, I strongly encourage you to listen to Andrew Kern’s podcast, The Top 5 Ideals That Any Classical School Should Employ.  It’s awesome.  And I mean, awesome, as in awe-inspiring.

But…

How does that relate to my homeschool room?

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In order to educate all these children, I need a space that is neat, simple, and beautiful, if possible.

Neat?  Most days.  Although it does happen that the boys will take out their circuits and leave them all over the room, and the Two-Year-Old will decide to shred an entire notebook to pieces.

Simple?  Sigh.  I operate a school.  Therefore, I must have some supplies, but these need not be in overabundance.  For example, do I really need those nifty magnetic shapes that everybody else has?  Nope.  (Although I secretly think they’re the coolest thing ever.)  Or how about a bucket full of markers?  Definitely not.

The third one?  Beauty?  I’m always harping on beauty, because it matters!  After all, Ratzinger once said, it’s martyrs and the arts that will evangelize the world, not all your committees and words.  Shoot, I came back into the Church through studying Church architecture, painting, and sculpture.*  One can only stare at Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico, and Wislawa Kwiatkowska for so long until one begins to ask questions.

In any case, today I’ll show you what works for us.

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In our homeschool room, you’ll see a table and chairs, where The Eldest prefers to do her school work because she can shut the door.  The other children like to carry their work out to the kitchen to be near me.

On the walls in here you’ll see a picture of B16 (our affectionate name for Pope Benedict XVI), two maps, a history timeline, the alphabet, and numbers.  These are all practical things, but I’ve also tried to place them proportionally on the walls.  (Proportion is so important that St. Thomas Aquinas names it as one of the three elements of beauty.)

The other side of the room features our computer work space and bookshelves.

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These are mostly our school history, science, and religion books.  Our other literature books are in a different room.

Lastly, we have the closet, which is a blessing.  No longer must I run from room-to-room in order to gather my daily supplies.  They’re all just here.

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And here’s a look at the inside of both sides:

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This side features the children’s completed work trays, cubbies, my answer keys on one of the upper shelves, and a few games on top.
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This side has the children’s puzzles with DVDs on the top shelf and a few art supplies on the lower shelf.

In a previous post I went into detail about educational supplies or “toys” HERE.

And that, my friends, completes the tour of our Homeschool Room.  But I’ll leave you with three things that I’m continually working on:

  1. It’s better to have less.
  2. How I organize my space matters, because beauty matters.
  3. And, less is really better.  (Except for books.)
*This is why ugly churches and bad art are a sin.  They convert no one.
Book Review

G. K. Chesterton and St. Francis: Book Review

St. Francis of Assisi by G. K. Chesterton

The other day I picked up a G. K. Chesterton book that I hadn’t thought of in ten years: St. Francis of Assisi.  I remember enjoying it then, if only understanding a 1/3 of it.  Now, that I’ve reread it, I understand more.  I love books that one can return to, because there’s such great depth.

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G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936).  Intellectual Powerhouse.  Catholic Convert.  Terror of Heretics.

My problem ten years ago was that I had little understanding of the history of the Church, and that’s the great strength of this book.  Chesterton doesn’t just start by saying Francis Bernardone was born on a rainy day in Assisi in 1181.  Nope.  He devotes the first couple of  chapters to describing the world in which St. Francis was born.  He answers such questions as, what was going on in the Church?  Or, why was there a great need for a man like St. Francis anyway?

St. Francis of Assisi is just as relevant today as when it was published in 1923.  In fact, it is probably more relevant as our culture has completely forgotten its roots, and if it remembers St. Francis at all, it remembers flowers and birds.  Nothing really of the man Francis – of his uncompromising holiness.  He didn’t just preach to birds and admire the flowers.  No.  This was the man who willingly embraced a leper because he wanted to overcome his cowardice.  This was the man who walked straight into the heart of the Crusades and demanded to speak to the notorious Sultan to tell him about Jesus Christ.  This was the man who bore the Stigmata and asked to be moved to the bare ground to die upon, in nothing but his hair-shirt.

Chesterton does an excellent job of startling our drowsy senses into wakefulness with this book.  He clears up our dull and hazy vision to reveal a truly great saint.

If you’re in need of a good nonfiction book, get this one.  But be warned, even though it is meant only to be an introduction to St. Francis, I found it helpful to be somewhat familiar with a basic outline of St. Francis’s life, as Chesterton seems to take that for granted.

Chesterton for Kids

If you’d like to introduce Chesterton to your children, check out these excellent readers put together by Nancy Carpentier Brown.  My children love them.

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Nancy Carpentier Brown takes G.K.C.’s Father Brown series and adapts it for children.

Want More For Yourself?

There is an excellent magazine that my husband and I have been enjoying for years.  It’s called Gilbert!  Perhaps some of you may be familiar with Dale Ahlquist?  He’s the publisher and editor.  Subscription to the magazine comes with membership to the American Chesterton Society.  I strongly recommend it.

This magazine features various essays from Chesterton and other current writers such as  Dale Ahlquist, James V. Schall, and my favorite, David Beresford.

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Here’s our latest issue.  This magazine is truly a gem.  I look forward to it every month.  (Even though I think there are only 8 issues a year…)

If you’ve never read Chesterton before, begin now.  And don’t be intimidated by him.  Many start with Orthodoxy or his Father Brown series.  Both are excellent.  If you love fiction, go with Father Brown.  If you’re a lover of nonfiction, go for the former.

4 Parting Smidgeons

  1. Since I’ve recently mentioned Evelyn Waugh on these pages…Chesterton wrote a scorching review of one of Waugh’s early books, Decline and Fall.  (Waugh wrote that book prior to his conversion.)  At the time, Waugh thought it was hilarious and put Chesterton’s condemnatory remarks on his 1929 Christmas card.
  2. After Waugh’s conversion, he became great friends with Hilaire Belloc, who happened to be best buds with Chesterton.  I’m not sure, however, if Waugh and Chesterton ever met.  (If anyone knows the answer to that, drop me a line.)
  3. In England, the Church is investigating Chesterton’s life with a view for opening his case for canonization.  This is only the very beginning stage of a long, long process.  Read about it HERE.
  4. What’s my favorite Chesterton book?  Everlasting Man.  And I recommend THIS copy because it contains Everlasting Man, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Thomas Aquinas – three of my favorite Chesterton books.