Saturday, October 25, 2014

Memoirs of a Medieval Woman: The Life and Times of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis -- Book Review

Book Description: "This unique biography tells the story of an extraordinary fifteenth-century woman who journeyed all over Europe from England to the Holy Land. A vigorous and passionate woman, Margery Kempe was married and had fourteen children when she deserted her family to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to expiate a "secret sin" in her early life. Along the way she meets many famous prelates and dignitaries, gets into all sort of scrapes, and survives a feverish voyage in the stinking galleys of a Venetian boat. Drawing on the chronicles of her contemporaries and on her own clear-eyed autobiography---dictated to a priest near the end of her life and said to be the first written in English---these memoirs reveal a woman who has strange ideas about such things as sin and sainthood, dress, diet, and sex, and provides a colorful and detailed picture of everyday medieval life in England and around the rim of the Mediterranean. Part-time historian Louise Collis brings a novelist's flair to this fascinating, well-researched story." 

My Thoughts: I don't have a strong opinion of this book, one way or another. While there's not a lot to get out of Margery's story in particular, the research that went in to setting her story in context gives the reader an excellent education on religious practices and pilgrimages of medieval times. It made me want to read The Canterbury Tales, and I did, in fact, read through a Peter Ackroyd's Chaucer biography just after this, being inspired by this book.

At first, I was wishing that the author would have left the translation alone and let us just read it in Middle English like The Canterbury Tales. However, once she did include Middle English snippets, I realized that I was THRILLED that she didn't summarized most of it. Ha! Here's an example from chapter 14: "a fedyr bedde, a matres, too pylwys, too peyre schetis and a qwylt". While it's obvious what that says, and sort of fun to read it, the entire book written that way would drive me nuts! Or should that be, "nuttyes"?

It was very interesting to read this story on the heels of one I just finished about the cross country trek of Helga Estby in the 1890s. Like Estby, but for very different reasons, Kempe left a husband and large family to go off on her own sort of adventure. The parallels were very interesting---journeys made 600 years apart. I found it interesting that, like Estby, Kempe had to get signatures as credentials to travel. There were 500 years between these women and so many similarities. It's been 100 years since Estby and it's all changed.

At the beginning of the story, it's revealed that Kempe had a secret sin that she didn't want to make known. It surprised me that she said she'd rather risk Hell than confess it. I wonder how this harbored sin ate her up throughout her life?

I think the people of Kempe's time definitely needed to heed the Biblical advice of testing the prophets! Oh boy! This woman was messed up! I found it funny that no one could stand her but everyone feared her. Kind of like an old time Molly Brown.

I really enjoyed the chapter on the visit to the Holy amazing...and hilarious! How the Lord must shake His head at us! Other parts moved kind of slowly, but it was probably more me being distracted than any lack on the author's part.

A couple of quotes at the end of the book sum Margery up well, I think:

"Indeed, indiscipline is the keynote of Margery's life. Though respectful of the church and those of its officers she approved, Margery owned no master, not even God."

"She was the victim of religious mania, deceiving herself as to the nature of her dreams and hallucinations."

I'm glad I read this and I hope the next reader enjoys and learns from it as well.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hawthorne and the Irony of Religious Hypocrisy

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I love reading Hawthorne in the fall. I think it's because he makes me feel smart---and fall means the beginning of school--which also makes me feel smart! Whatever the reason, Hawthorne is great in any season.

I've been reading through an anthology of some of his best short stories called, Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tales, and have been making all kinds of notes. So, you'll probably be hearing about him more than once over the next few months!

Something I find over and over again in much of Hawthorne's writing is what commentator Q. D. Leavis calls "a symbolic recurring struggle" between two groups of former Englishmen in early America: those living the Puritan lifestyle and those not. I enjoy reading these stories because I appreciate how well he noted the ironic hypocrisy of the religious person---usually represented by the Puritan characters. I also see an innocence and naiveté in the non-Puritan people that seems to recur and makes me believe that this is the side with which he personally sympathizes. With Puritans in his family line---some of whom made life and death decisions during the Salem Witch Trials---I've always thought Hawthorne wanted to use his writing as an apology of sorts. While these elements of duplicity are evident in almost everything I read of his, the story lines in both The May Pole of Merry Mount and Feathertop epitomize this conflict.

One theme that really strikes me is the way in which characters act rashly out of fear and end up misrepresenting the goodness they claim to possess. In May Pole, as in much of what we read about Puritan history, the Puritans were so afraid of incurring the wrath of God that they made condemning judgments on those who wouldn't conform to what they believed was right. I find it sad that the heathen people had more obvious joy than the Puritans who claimed to be full of the joy of the Lord. Unfortunately, the first Puritan-like act of the "May-couple" is the act of them conforming out of fear because of all that they have lost. They have nothing left and so must now follow "the Puritan leader, their only guide." That same sort of fear is found in Feathertop's Master Gookin, who gives his daughter freedom to socialize with someone he knows to be associated with the witch Mother Rigby out of fear of the consequences she would curse him with. Not only does he welcome Feathertop into his home, but he treats him as a higher-up, calling him "my Lord Feathertop" and instructing his daughter to pay him reverence and honor.

Another thing I found in my reading is that Hawthorne was really good at pointing out those things in the religious man that make the non-religious man shun religion! Mother Rigby's threat to Feathertop that she would, "hurl thee where that red coal came from" if he didn't continue to puff away at the cursed pipe is like the threat that Endicott faced in Maypole if he were to back down on the pagan couple's punishment. Feathertop's curious puffings became more intense as his purpose changed. Where once he was obeying the witch's commands in order to "show (himself) a man," the fear she incites in him causes him to puff harder to avoid punishment. In this same way, I got the impression that Endicott saw a young and, in his opinion, confused couple who just needed some guidance. However, he had the voice of Peter Palfrey nudging him to courser actions. Not only did Endicott have to answer to God if he let them continue with their heathen practices, he would also be branded a heathen by all the other Puritans. His actions against the merrymakers weren't based on a desire to do right but rather on an over-inflated fear of doing wrong. This hypocrisy and fear are probably what turned the May Pole people off from religion to begin with!

Hawthorne's writings are such an interesting source of historical interpretations of the time of the Puritans. I always come away with heart-humbling ideas to mull over. It's interesting to see that there really is nothing new under the sun and that each of us struggle, just as the Puritans did, to keep fear from ruling our decisions and characters.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The River by Beverly Lewis -- Book Review

Beverly Lewis has long been one of my very favorite authors. Before I picked up my first Lewis book, I had never even heard of the Amish culture (well, unless you count Weird Al's Amish Paradise parody). I quickly fell in love with this people and, over time, I've learned so much about faith, family loyalty---and have even been challenged a time or two!

I recently was chosen to review a copy of one of her newest books, The River. This was a huge honor for me as I know there were many in line to get their hands on a review copy. You'd think with over ninety books under her belt that the woman would have run out of things to write about. However, she proves her worth, once again, with this touching story from the heart of Amish country.

Book Description: "Tilly and Ruth, two formerly Amish sisters, are plagued by unresolved relationship when they reluctantly return to Lancaster County for their parents' landmark wedding anniversary. Since departing their Plain upbringing, Tilly has married an Englisher, but Ruth remains single and hasn't entirely forgotten her failed courtship with her Amish beau. Past meets present as Tilly and Ruth yearn for acceptance and redemption. Can they face the future in the light of a past they can't undo?"

My Thoughts: I'd better start off by saying that this wasn't one of my favorites. Because of the way it ends, I think the story should have been carried into a sequel so the story of Ruth, especially, could be expanded on a bit. I felt that Ruth's heart was not made clear and her decision was somewhat surprising. (Yes, I'm being vague...I want you to read it!) More and more I'm seeing Lewis' books involving more of the Englishers and how the two cultures meld. I think I prefer her stories that have the Amish characters finding ways to stay true to the Lord while still remaining loyal to their heritage. I guess that seems more quaint and homey to me! Ha!

Have you read The River? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

More Than A Review Helps You Never Be Surprised By Bad Content

I'm happy to welcome Donna Feyen, creator of the site, More Than A Review, to guest post today. Read on as she shares her commitment to help readers choose books that line up with their personal standards and content preferences.

I am so excited to guest post on Belle’s Library and love that there’s another website dedicated to quality literature! My name is Donna Feyen and I love books so much that I created a website called More Than A Review. MTAR is a tool that can help readers of all book genres to never pick up a book and have the experience ruined by unexpected offensive content.

So how is MTAR different? 
More Than A Review offers a different kind of rating and review system. Most review sites offer the overall rating, which basically says “I liked this book a lot” or “I really didn’t like this book.” At MTAR, we have the same concept. The Overall Rating is the reviewer’s opinion of the book with one star being low and five stars being high.

Here’s where things get different: the Content Rating stars tell you how much violence, offensive language, sex, and drug or alcohol use will be found in the book. We’ve found these four issues are both the most commonly found types of objectionable material, and the issues that cause readers the most pause.

No stars mean no content in that category was found anywhere in the book. If “Language” shows zero stars, for example, then there is no rough language in the book.

The number of increasing stars tells the person reading your book review that there is some content in that category they may not appreciate.

Content ratings are in these categories:
Sexual content
Drug/alcohol use

Each person has his or her own level of sensitivity to a given issue and therefore might give a higher or lower rating of stars based on that sensitivity. That’s why we’ve created a guide that outlines what each star means. That review guideline is available on our website.

When you write a review, please use these definitions for the Content Rating stars. When we all do this, we can be sure that each reviewer’s stars mean the same thing. Forgive the pun, but it’s so we’re on the same page.

Who would use MTAR? 
My first response is that anyone can use MTAR but we do have a few audiences who are more likely to find it useful. These include:

Anyone with a more conservative belief system who would not appreciate certain kinds of content
Teachers and librarians needing to refer parents and older students to quality material
Those who might be sensitive to a given content area because it is a trigger for emotional distress
Parents wanting to help their teenagers discern better reading choices with cleaner content
Anyone who doesn’t want to be surprised by content in a book!

Want to learn more? Check us out at

Donna Feyen, founder of More Than A Review (MTAR), is an avid reader, a "stalker" (a.k.a. devoted fan) of popular band Third Day, and loves to scrapbook in both the traditional and digital styles.  Donna started MTAR after reading several books that fell short of their "traditional" reviews and included more graphic content than she was expecting to read. These disappointments and the inability to research the content of a book before purchase, led Donna to the purpose and vision behind MTAR.